Broad base closures loom
Knight Ridder News Services
WASHINGTON The Pentagon is gearing up for a sweeping round of base closures that could shutter as many as one-fourth of the country's 425 military installations over the next few years.
Defense officials and analysts say the move next year would save billions of dollars that the armed services are spending every year to maintain obsolete and unneeded facilities money they say could be better spent on modernizing military hardware and improving the quality of life for America's 1.4 million active-duty servicemen and women.
Even though the $401 billion defense budget is at an all-time high, the push comes as U.S. troops are stretched thin fighting a guerrilla insurgency in Iraq, tracking down al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, and keeping a lid on potential hot spots such as the Korean Peninsula.
Although some lawmakers want to increase the size of the Army by as many as 40,000 troops, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld instead is plowing ahead with plans to transform the armed services into a leaner and more lethal force outfitted with a new generation of advanced weapons, communications gear and other equipment.
With so many competing priorities, defense officials and many analysts say, the stakes involved in a new round of base closures couldn't be higher.
"It's going to be the mother of all base-closure rounds," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a conservative Washington policy research group. "It's going to close two to three times the capacity of any previous round, and the reason why is simple. Secretary Rumsfeld wants to free up as much money as he can for the transformation of the military to the information age, while at the same time he changes the way the military does business."
It's unclear which installations will be targeted under the 2005 cuts. Unlike previous rounds, the 2005 review will look at overall "capacity," not just particular installations, said Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood.
"For instance, DoD maintains a lot of facilities here in the Washington, D.C., area that are part of the overall capacity, but aren't necessarily part of any installation," Flood said.
Members of Hawai'i's congressional delegation and state leaders have said that they do not think that the state has much to fear in the next round of closings because of Hawai'i's strategic location and political clout.
Charlie Ota, vice president for military affairs with the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i, has said he doesn't think Hawai'i is as vulnerable as other states. The chamber keeps in close contact with Hawai'i's Washington delegation a delegation that wields a degree of military clout.
Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, is ranking member of the Appropriations defense subcommittee. Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
Despite four previous rounds of closures in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 in which 387 military installations, including 97 major bases, were shut down or had their missions realigned, the Pentagon estimates that as much as 20 percent to 25 percent of base capacity is still unneeded, even in the event of a major war.
The closures have saved taxpayers nearly $17 billion in one-time costs and are projected to save more than $6 billion a year over the next decade, according to Pentagon estimates.
Although representatives for the Pentagon say they can't estimate how much money would be saved by closing the doors on an additional 100 installations, top officials and reform advocates argue that it would be at least as much as all four previous rounds combined.
Already, lawmakers and booster groups are marshalling their forces for the upcoming battle.
The initial steps for the 2005 closures began last month when the Defense Department published a list of draft criteria. In early January, the Pentagon sent a memo to all installation commanders ordering them to begin an inventory of their facilities.
Public comment on the criteria ends Wednesday. In March 2005, the president, in consultation with congressional leaders, will appoint a nine-member Base Closure and Realignment Commission. Two months later, the defense secretary will submit a list of bases recommended for closure or realignment.
A vote by seven members can add an installation to the list; a simple majority can vote to keep any base off the list.
The commission's final list is due to be sent to the White House by Sept. 8, 2005. If the president accepts the list, it becomes law within 45 days, unless Congress rejects the entire list, which has never happened. Neither the president nor Congress can add or remove bases from the list.
Rumsfeld is looking at ways to reduce U.S. troop commitments overseas, and some foreign bases are likely to be closed over the next few years. Overseas installations aren't subject to the same closure review process that domestic facilities are.