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Panel approves most military base closures

The commission considering the Pentagon’s proposal to restructure hundreds of U.S. military bases voted Wednesday to shut down five major Army bases in Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia.
Fort Monroe, a U.S. Army base in Virginia, is seen in this aerial view along with an Air Force F/A-22 Raptor. The panel weighing military base closures agreed with the Pentagon's proposal to close Fort Monroe and four other major Army bases.Tsgt Ben Bloker / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Disagreeing with the Pentagon on several key requests, the U.S. government's base closing commission voted Wednesday to keep open two New England Navy bases as well as an Army depot in Texas.

Commission Chairman Anthony Principi declared that Portsmouth shipyard at Kittery, Maine, and Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., “will remain open” — rejecting Pentagon plans that New England officials said would damage the economy in their region.

“Yahoo!” exclaimed Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. “Submarine base New London lives, and I think that it will live forever.”

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who urged the commission to save the shipyard in Maine near the New Hampshire border, added: “This is a sweet victory.”

In another rejection of the Pentagon plan, the commission voted to close Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine, rather than drastically reduce forces there, arguing that savings could be realized more quickly if it was shut down altogether.

Over the past four months, the nine-member panel has expressed worries that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s proposal would leave the Northeast unprotected, a contention the Pentagon rejected.

The votes to spare both the submarine base and the shipyard were somewhat of a surprise; lobbyists and some lawmakers had privately speculated that the panel would save one base but scrap the other.

Commissioners had earlier said changes to the Pentagon’s proposal were likely before they send their final report next month to President Bush, who could make his own changes. Congress also will get the chance to approve a joint resolution rejecting the plan after Bush considers it.

The commission also voted to spare Red River Army Depot in Texas. But it voted to support the Pentagon's request to close five big Army bases in Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia.

The panel also voted to close the Lone Star Ammunition plant in Texarkana, Texas, eliminating about 400 jobs, and the Pascagoula Naval Station in Mississippi, eliminating 963 jobs.

It voted to conditionally spare the master jet base at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va. However, state and local officials were warned that if they do not meet requirements to increase safety for pilots practicing at the field by March, steps will be taken to move the master jet base back to Cecil Field in Florida.

Reserve, Guard facilities to be regionalized
As it began voting with lightning speed, the panel also signed off on closing nearly 400 Army Reserve and National Guard facilities in dozens of states, creating instead new joint centers.

The commission decided to side with the Pentagon in closing Fort Gillem and Fort McPherson in Georgia, Fort Monroe in Virginia, the U.S. Army Garrison in Selfridge, Mich., and Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

Most of the Army’s proposal was approved in minutes and as a package, but the commission considered and voted separately on Fort Gillem, Fort Monmouth and Red River, the three most contentious Army bases proposed for closure.

Before voting started, Principi said reviewing the proposal to close or shrink hundreds of bases set a daunting and unprecedented challenge for commissioners.

“The commission went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the soundness, correctness and integrity of the base realignment and closure process and to fulfill our commitment to transparency, honesty and fairness for all,” said Principi, a former Veterans Affairs secretary.

More recommendations from Rumsfeld
He said the task was especially difficult because Rumsfeld’s proposal included more than twice the recommendations in the four previous rounds of base closings combined.

Opening at least three days of final deliberations on which bases to spare and which to scrap, Principi said the commission recognizes that closing bases are necessary to save money and transform the military to meet new challenges.

“At the same time, we know that the decisions we reach will have a profound impact on the communities hosting our military installations, and more importantly, on the people who bring those communities to life,” he said.

Sept. 11 factor
Previous commissions — in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 — altered about 15 percent of what the Pentagon proposed as it sought to get rid of bases considered no longer needed. But analysts say the current environment — including the emphasis on homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001 — make it difficult to predict just what the commission will change.

“It’s not about just trying to get rid of excess capacity. It’s actually about trying to reorganize the forces for future challenges,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

On Tuesday, Rumsfeld was optimistic his plan would remain largely intact. “I feel that we made very solid recommendations,” he said. “I suspect the commission, when all is said and done, will endorse the overwhelming majority of those recommendations.”

The Pentagon proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years, streamline the services and reposition the armed forces to face current threats. It’s the first such effort in a decade to reconfigure domestic military bases and the most ambitious by far.

Lobbying and concerns
Announced in May, the proposal set off intense lobbying by communities fearful that the closures and downsizings would hurt their economies and by politicians worried they would be blamed by voters for job losses.

In the months since, commissioners reviewing the plan have voiced serious concerns about several parts of it, including the Pentagon’s estimate of how much money will be saved.

The most contentious issues have been the Air Force’s proposal to strip aircraft from about two dozen Air National Guard facilities and the Navy’s efforts to scale back its forces in New England.

Commissioners fear those proposals could hamper homeland security, a contention the Pentagon rejects.

The Air Force’s attempt to close Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, home to freshman Republican Sen. John Thune, has stirred the most political consternation. Thune argued during the 2004 campaign that he — not then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle — would be in a better position to save the facility.

14 hours a day
The commission is scheduled to work 14 hours each day, although members are hoping to complete their work before the weekend. Army, Navy and joint-service recommendations will be considered first, followed by the Air Force.

The panel must send its final proposal to Bush by Sept. 8. The president can accept the report or order the commission to make changes, a scenario considered unlikely given that his predecessor, President Clinton, was criticized for such intervention in 1995.

If Bush accepts the proposal, it will become law in about nine weeks unless Congress passes a joint resolution rejecting it. Lawmakers haven’t taken that step in any of the previous base-closing rounds.