updated 7/18/2005 6:54:52 PM ET 2005-07-18T22:54:52

The base-closing commission expressed deep reservations Monday about parts of the Pentagon’s proposal to restructure domestic military bases, including its plan to disband or move dozens of Air National Guard units.

On the eve of a vote by the commission on whether to add about a dozen facilities to those the Defense Department has proposed closing or shrinking, panel members questioned why several were left off the list. These included the Naval Shipyard at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

The skepticism exhibited by members of the independent commission at a hearing was an indication that they won’t rubber-stamp Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s proposal as some in Congress had feared.

In May, Rumsfeld proposed closing or reducing forces at 62 major bases and hundreds of smaller installations to save money and streamline the services.

Hearings, investigation to follow vote
Commission Chairman Anthony Principi has pledged to analyze the list independently and make changes if needed before sending it to President Bush for approval this fall.

“We want to make sure the best possible closure or realignment choices are made,” Principi said. “It is not our intent to disrupt or to unreasonably target communities that may have breathed a sigh of relief in May when the secretary’s list of recommendations was released, or to further burden communities already facing losses.”

After voting Tuesday on whether to add certain bases to the Pentagon’s list, the nine-member commission will conduct public hearings, visit the sites and collect data to make direct comparisons with bases that perform similar missions and are slated for closure.

It takes votes from seven of nine commission members to add a base to the list on Tuesday. The commission then will have to reaffirm that decision in August, with seven of nine votes. Other bases on the Pentagon’s list can be removed at that time by five of nine votes.

Pentagon discourages changes
For their part, defense officials who testified Monday discouraged changes to Rumsfeld’s list of proposed closures and consolidations.

Michael Wynne, the Pentagon’s technology and weapons-buying chief who oversaw the base restructuring project, said, “While the department stands behind it’s recommendations, it fully supports the commission and analysis of alternatives.”

However, Wynne then reiterated Rumsfeld’s contention that changing the fate of even one base could disrupt other aspects of the “comprehensive, integrated and interdependent” package of recommendations.

Commissioners appeared unlikely to heed that warning.

Nearly every commissioner questioned the Pentagon’s proposal to scrap or shift roughly 30 Air National Guard units by taking away the planes or the missions. By law, governors, through their adjutants general, command Guard forces during statewide emergencies like civil disturbances, floods, hurricanes or forest fires.

State officials complain that Rumsfeld can’t legally move the units without the governors’ consent, and Pennsylvania officials have filed a lawsuit over the issue. The Justice Department is reviewing the matter, and defense officials have asked the commission to refrain from changing Rumsfeld’s Air National Guard recommendations until that ruling.

“The commission believes a solution is needed,” Principi said.

One proposal being floated Monday would ensure that each state has at least one Air National Guard flying unit. The proposal was seen by some lobbyists as a way to mollify adjutants general.

Harold Gehman, a commissioner and a retired Navy admiral, called the Air National Guard proposals “unworkable and unsatisfactory.”

Several others, including Principi, questioned whether Rumsfeld’s recommendations would hamper homeland security duties or create recruiting problems.

‘They produce very little savings’
Commissioner Philip Coyle, a former assistant secretary of defense, said of the recommendations, “They produce very little savings.”

Defense officials said the benefits of consolidating the Guard units to achieve a more cohesive force outweigh the drawbacks.

Commission members also questioned the Pentagon’s decision to close the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, instead of the Naval Shipyard at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, given Portsmouth’s reputation for quickly repairing submarines.

And, they pressed for an explanation for why the Pentagon decided to leave open the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego — when the Marines already have a recruiting station at Parris Island, S.C., and the other services have consolidated their recruit-training facilities.

“I’m having a hard time getting my hands around this,” said commissioner James Hansen, a former Utah congressman.

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