August 21, 2005

U.S. base panel seen refusing some Pentagon closings

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The commission with veto power over
U.S. military base closings is expected to reject some of the
Pentagon's recommended cutbacks in final deliberations this
week on the fate of hundreds of installations and thousands of

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission may even
shutter some bases that the Defense Department wanted to keep
open, such as the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach,

"We're not going to bless it all, I suspect," Commissioner
James Hill, a retired Army general, said of the Pentagon's wish
list on Saturday.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in May recommended
closure or cutbacks affecting 837 faculties, including closures
of 33 major installations with a replacement value of $100
million or more.

The plan envisions a net loss of more than 26,000 military
and civilian jobs, producing nearly $50 billion in savings over
a 20-year period.

Some proposed closings, such as Cannon Air Force Base near
Clovis, New Mexico, would deal devastating blows to rural
economies, while others may free up valuable land for
development in large metropolitan areas.

The hardest-hit region is New England, which stands to see
the closure of the New London Submarine Base in Connecticut,
the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and Otis Air National
Guard Base in Massachusetts. Maine's Brunswick Naval Air
station also would lose all of its maritime patrol aircraft and
2,420 jobs.

Commission Chairman Anthony Principi, former Secretary of
Veterans Affairs, has repeatedly expressed concern that the
military is pulling out of New England entirely and questioned
the strategic wisdom of leaving no presence in the region.


The nine-member commission, made up of former generals,
admirals, congressmen and other ex-government officials, has
sharply questioned the Pentagon's cost savings projections
because the military's overall force levels will not decline
after the closings.

"At the end of the day, if you don't have end-strength
reductions, you don't have any military savings," Principi

Analysts said this round of closings is more complex than
the previous rounds from 1988 to 1995. Rather than simply
shutting down post-Cold War excess capacity, this round aims to
transform the military by fostering more joint operations
between armed services and lay groundwork for new missions such
as electronic warfare and unmanned aerial vehicles.

"This commission has made it clear from the outset that
they don't feel bound by what the Pentagon is saying," said
Christopher Hellman, defense policy analyst with the Center for
Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

"They're working right up until the eleventh hour and to my
mind that indicates a willingness to make some changes," he

The commissioners visited 173 installations, held 33 public
hearings and pored over 80,000 e-mails in three months.

Principi said among the most difficult decisions are
whether to close the New England bases, Cannon, and Ellsworth
Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota and whether to
strip air wings and personnel from Eielson Air Force Base in
Alaska and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

"These are decisions that will impact our military for
decades to come and will have a profound impact on the
communities where the changes are being made. That's tough
stuff," he said.

The commission on its own put Virginia's Oceana base up for
consideration because construction of nearby homes and shopping
malls has led to flight restrictions that impede training. On
Saturday, the commission heard a pitch from Florida officials
to replace it with Cecil Field near Jacksonville, a Naval air
base that was closed in 1999 in favor of Oceana.

To improve the transparency of the process, the commission
will vote on the bases in open deliberations from Wednesday
through Saturday at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia.

It must submit its changes to President George W. Bush by
September 8. The president and Congress can accept or reject
the list in its entirely but can make no changes.