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Base closure list becomes battleground

Lawmakers and officials representing communities with some of the 180 military bases targeted for closure on Friday vowed to fight to get off the list, saying their areas would be crippled and national security would be damaged.
Planes sit on the tarmac at Kulis Air National Guard Station in Anchorage, Alaska. The base is targeted for closure under the realignment plan released Friday by the Pentagon. Mark Farmer / via AP file
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Lawmakers and officials representing communities with some of the 180 military bases targeted for closure on Friday vowed to fight to get off the list, saying their areas would be crippled and national security would be damaged.

“The battle starts today,” said Gerry Tarantolo, mayor of Eatontown, N.J., which is home to Fort Monmouth, a base that would lose all its 5,272 military and civilian jobs, according to the Pentagon proposal released Friday.

An angry Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., vowed to “fight like hell to change it. I’m not about to let the Pentagon’s error put the fort and the soldiers it serves in harm’s way.”

And Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., voiced his opposition to a proposal to close the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., which would mean losing some 8,000 jobs. "I'm surprised and I'm shocked," Simmons, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, told MSNBC. "We are going to fight this decision," he added, noting that the committee's chairman also opposes the closure.

Under the proposal, 33 large military bases and some 150 smaller facilities from Maine to Hawaii would be closed to save money and to better suit defense needs.

The list, which earlier reports pegged at 150 total sites, triggers the first round of proposed base closures in a decade and an intense struggle by communities to save their facilities.

Scores of other domestic installations — including 29 major bases — would remain open but with thousands fewer troops.

Republican senator vows to fight
Among the major proposed closures is Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, home to 29 B-1B bombers, half the nation’s fleet of the aircraft, and the state’s second largest employer.

That would deal a potential political setback to Republican freshman Sen. John Thune, who had claimed he could protect the base if elected during his campaign to defeat former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

Thune called the Pentagon “flat wrong” about Ellsworth, and he vowed to help lead the fight in the Senate to delay the entire round of closures. “We will continue to keep Ellsworth open,” Thune said.

An Air Force study last year estimated Ellsworth’s annual economic impact in the state at $278 million, including its $161 million annual payroll.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also recommended closing the Naval Station in Pascagoula, Miss., which barely survived previous base closure rounds. The decision was a blow to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who had fought the 1995 round of closures. At stake are 844 military jobs and 112 civilian jobs.

Other major proposed closures are:

  • Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., which would mean losing 8,000 jobs;
  • Fort McPherson in Georgia, costing nearly 4,200 jobs;
  • Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, which now has 4,200 jobs;
  • Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, which would lose more than 2,700 jobs;
  • The Naval Station in Ingleside, Texas, costing more than 2,100 jobs.

Other major bases — including the Army’s Fort Bliss in Texas, the Naval Shipyard in Norfolk, Va., and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland — would see gains, as they absorb troops whose current home bases are slated for closure.

Rumsfeld's plan calls for a massive shift of U.S. forces that would result in a net loss of 29,005 military and civilian jobs at domestic installations. Overall, he proposes pulling 218,570 military and civilian positions out of some U.S. bases while adding 189,565 positions to others.

President Bush’s home state of Texas could gain more than 9,000 military jobs even while losing four major installations and several smaller ones.

Of the 33 major bases to be closed, which represent 10 percent of all major U.S. bases, the Army would have the largest number at 14, followed by 10 for the Air Force and nine for the Navy. But facilities for the Army’s foot soldiers would grow at 18 of its bases compared to growth at 14 each for the Air Force and Navy.

$48.8 billion in savings forecast
Rumsfeld on Thursday tried to assure wary communities that the number will be less severe than expected, saying he had scaled back his recommendations because the military had less surplus space than once estimated.

He predicted that his list of closures and realignments, if approved, would result in a net savings to the government of $48.8 billion over 20 years. That figure takes into account a recurring annual savings of $5.5 billion, partly offset by billions in closure expenses.

Previous estimates of savings from base closings have proven to be overly optimistic, although the Pentagon says it has recorded a net gain of about $18 billion from four previous rounds. Environmental cleanup is one of the biggest upfront costs.

More than two years in the making and wrapped in strict secrecy, the Rumsfeld recommendations on which of the Pentagon’s 425 domestic bases to close, shrink or expand were delivered Friday to a congressionally chartered commission.

Next step: Public hearings
Before closures or downsizing can take effect, the Defense Department's proposal must be approved or changed by a federal base closing commission by Sept. 8, and then agreed to by Congress and President Bush, in a process that will run into the fall.

In four previous rounds of closures starting in 1988, commissions have accepted 85 percent of bases the Pentagon recommended for closure or consolidation. However, the current commission's chairman, Anthony Principi, has promised not to rubber stamp Rumsfeld's list.

"We're going to be an independent check and assessment on the Department of Defense recommendations," Principi said Friday in an interview after reviewing the list. "I can assure the communities that we will be very fair, open and we will not politicize this process."

The last round of closings was in 1995, when 27 major bases were selected for closure and 22 were chosen for realignment. Minor adjustments were made at 57 other sites. As of 2001 it had cost the Pentagon $6.5 billion to implement the changes, while savings in operating and upkeep costs were estimated at $6.2 billion.

The Pentagon estimates that its 1995 base actions, combined with closings and realignments from 1988, 1991 and 1993, resulted in a net savings to the government of about $18 billion through 2001, and it projects recurring annual savings of $7.3 billion from those four rounds combined.

Shifting priorities
At a Pentagon news conference Thursday, Rumsfeld said that domestic bases have 5 percent to 10 percent more space than they need. That contrasts with earlier estimates of 20 percent to 25 percent.

“The department is recommending fewer major base closures than had earlier been anticipated, due in part to the return of tens of thousands of troops through our global posture review and also due to decisions to reduce lease space by moving activities from leased space into (government) owned facilities,” he said.

As part of that posture review, some 70,000 U.S. troops and nearly 100,000 dependents will be departing bases in Europe for U.S. military installations in the continental United States.

Rumsfeld said the military has so many pressing needs, including properly equipping its forces and reducing the stresses imposed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that it must economize where possible.

Analyst: Money's not the issue
Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, noted that a net savings of $2.4 billion a year — $48 billion divided by 20 years — is the equivalent of cutting one major weapons program.

“The big story here is not going to be saving money. The big story is going to be preparing the force for future threats by moving it to more logical locations,” Thompson said.

He predicted forces will move to the West Coast from the East since threats in Europe have been replaced by concerns emerging from across the Pacific. In addition, more forces could move south, where land is cheaper than in the Northeast.

Rumsfeld said the Pentagon stands ready to help ease the negative impact of base closings on communities that have long supported the military.

Rumsfeld was joined at the news conference by the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, who all said the base-closing process would help their services.

“It’s a necessary step to improve the war-fighting capability of the joint force,” said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

New reality
Rumsfeld said that “current arrangements pretty much designed for the Cold War must give way to the new demands of war against extremists and other evolving 21st century challenges.”

The military for years has been operating more bases than it needs for the 1.4 million troops on active duty. Throughout the late 1990s, Congress refused to authorize a new round of base closings.

The Pentagon has several motives for seeking to close and downsize some of its 425 major U.S. domestic bases. Fewer bases would mean smaller costs for operating and maintaining facilities. Another motive is to promote greater integration of training among the military services — and between the active-duty and reserve forces — by having them share bases.

States weigh economic impact
State governments and their elected representatives are worried because losing a military installation can be a blow to the local economy, and they’re doing whatever they can to try to spare their bases.

In response, President Bush on Thursday signed an executive order naming Rumsfeld or his designee to oversee a task force that assists “substantially and seriously affected communities, businesses and workers from the effects of major defense base closures, realignments and defense contract-related adjustments.”

“The department will take great care to work with these communities with the respect that they have earned, and the government stands ready with economic assistance,” Rumsfeld said.