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Base closing panel: Pentagon way off on savings

The Pentagon overestimated savings from base closings by $30 billion and some of its plans for streamlining the military might have made them less efficient, a federal commission review of the process said Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Pentagon overestimated savings from base closings by $30 billion and some of its plans for streamlining the Army, Navy and Air Force might have made them less efficient, a federal commission review of the process said Friday.

In its final report, the nine-member panel also questions whether the Pentagon should have postponed the current round of base closings and consolidations, the first in a decade, until a major review of the national defense strategy was finished.

Its five months of work complete, the base-closing commission voiced its concerns even as it approved roughly 86 percent of what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recommended as he sought to save money by getting rid of extra space in the domestic military network.

That’s on par with previous years, when commissions changed only about 15 percent of what the Pentagon proposed.

President Bush now must decide whether to accept the panel’s plan. Last month, the president, using the commission’s acronym, told reporters: “in order for the process to be nonpolitical, it’s very important to make it clear that the decision of BRAC will stand, as far as I am concerned.”

Bush still could reject the report altogether or send it back to the commission for more changes. Either of those options could open him up to criticism when his poll numbers are low and his administration is taking heat for its response to Hurricane Katrina.

After Congress receives the report from the president, lawmakers have 45 days to block it. The report will become law unless the House and the Senate pass a joint resolution objecting to it. That has never occurred in previous base-closing rounds.

Where panel, Pentagon differed
Along with changes at hundreds of smaller facilities, the Pentagon had recommended closing 33 major bases. The panel approved 21 of those closures, but proposed scaling back forces at seven of those bases rather than shutting the doors entirely. In the most high-profile decisions, the panel decided to keep open five major bases the Pentagon wanted to scrap.

The Pentagon has claimed its plan, affecting military bases and communities from coast to coast, would save about $49 billion over 20 years.

But the commission said the Pentagon wrongly attributed most of the savings to the relocation — but not elimination — of 26,830 military personnel to other facilities.

If the personnel “savings” were not included, the commission said in its final report that the Pentagon plan would save only $19 billion.

While the Pentagon aimed to increase “jointness” among the service branches by streamlining operations and support across the Army, Navy and Air Force, “very few of the hundreds of proposals increased jointness, and some actually decreased or removed joint and cross-service connections,” the panel said in the report.

It said Rumsfeld’s recommendations “will not move the ball across the jointness goal line” but the commission’s changes “will help move the ball down the field.”

The commission also said the completion of the upcoming report on national defense strategy, called the Quadrennial Defense Review, “may have better informed and assisted the commission in making its final decisions.” The panel suggested that future rounds of base closings should be done only after such major strategic reviews are finished.

Judge rules to keep Conn. base
The commission sent the report to the White House late Thursday but only after withdrawing a recommendation that called for moving the 103rd Fighter Wing’s jets from Connecticut’s Bradley Air National Guard base to Massachusetts. The change was in response to a federal judge’s ruling.

Connecticut was among a number of states that had gone to court seeking to stop the commission’s plan so that bases targeted for closure in their states would be spared.

Federal judges in Tennessee and Connecticut had blocked the panel from relocating units at local Air National Guard bases. A federal appeals court overturned the Tennessee ruling, but the Connecticut injunction stood.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg then rejected the Bush administration’s request for intervention in the Connecticut case. The administration contends the panel’s recommendations are not reviewable by courts.

Ginsburg said a federal appeals court in New York was dealing with the Connecticut case and “this court should not short-circuit the normal review process absent a showing of irreparable harm stronger than that presented here.”

That prompted the commission to strike the section covering the Bradley Air National Guard base. But it said it would restore the recommendation if the Connecticut court’s injunction “is later vacated, reversed, stayed or otherwise withdrawn.”