Round 5 may mean more base closures

Pentagon: Chance to reshape defense

By Otto Kreisher
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

November 22, 2004

WASHINGTON – With the last obstacle to another round of base realignment and closure apparently removed, the Pentagon is preparing for what it considers "the best, and perhaps the last, chance to reshape defense for decades," according to an official deeply involved in the process.

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Raymond DuBois, the deputy undersecretary of defense who has been leading the preparations, said this round will differ from the previous four rounds that closed 97 major installations, including 29 in California, and made changes to hundreds more.

"The crucial difference this year is that the secretary of defense is driving the selection process, not the service secretaries," DuBois said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will recommend changes based on the overall needs of the four service branches rather than letting each service chief make recommendations based on what's best for his particular branch.

That could significantly change the outcome, analysts said, with the branches merging similar activities into one facility and closing the others. This consolidation could be significant for flight training; research, development and testing; and logistics and supply facilities, the analysts suggested.

Because of a number of factors, this round of base realignment and closure, or BRAC, could see more closures than its predecessors.

A Pentagon report to Congress this year concluded that the armed services and joint defense agencies together have 23 percent "excess capacity."

That does not mean, DuBois emphasized, the closure of 23 percent of the 1,200 to 1,300 defense installations in the United States. But it could affect many communities near bases and those with Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve units at their airports.

The armed services might try to close or scale back everything they believe they will not need because, DuBois said, "I don't think Congress or the administration will have the appetite to do this again anytime soon."

The Air Force has been particularly eager for a closure round and recently indicated its intention to reduce its fighter force and to blend some Guard or Reserve units into active Air Force bases.

Getting to this closure round was long and difficult.

The 1988 law that authorized the process expired after the fourth round in 1995. Since then, Congress has blocked repeated administration efforts to renew the law, which cut through a wall of restrictions that had stopped all major changes to bases for a decade.

Most of the California delegation opposed another round of base closings because the state was hit hard in the four previous rounds. For example, San Diego County lost the Naval Training Center and several research facilities and saw Miramar Naval Air Station transferred to the Marine Corps.

Even after the process was reactivated in 2001, some members of Congress tried repeatedly to delay or cancel the 2005 round.

During the presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry said he would postpone base closure if he won.

With that prospect gone, the Pentagon is working in secret to produce the list of recommended closures and realignments that Rumsfeld must submit by May 16.

The serious work started Jan. 5, when the Pentagon sent a "data call" to every military installation, asking 789 questions about their facilities, costs and other issues.

Their responses are being screened by seven cross-service teams, which will evaluate and compare individual bases doing similar functions, looking for opportunities for mergers, DuBois said.

The seven categories being studied are: education and training; industrial activities, which includes government-owned shipyards, air rework depots, arsenals and ammunition plants; supply and storage for the services and the Defense Logistic Agency; headquarters and support; medical treatment facilities; technical functions and laboratories; and intelligence assets.

The services already share training in many specialties, including artillery, engineers and military police. But there has been pressure to merge more flight training, particularly the Army's and the naval services' basic-level helicopter training, which are now conducted at separate bases about 50 miles apart.

The Pentagon has been trying for years to get better control of its hundreds of testing and research facilities. They are considered a major target of the next round and are an area of concern in California, which has a number of such facilities doing similar activities within miles of each other.

The next step in the process will be the appointment of nine commissioners who will review and possibly modify Rumsfeld's recommendations. Although the president will nominate all nine, he gets to choose only three. The Republican leaders of the House and Senate will select two each and the Democratic leaders will name one each.

DuBois said he expected the nominations by late January so the commissioners can be confirmed by the Senate and in place before the May 16 deadline for releasing the Pentagon's recommendations.

Meanwhile, the selection process is being monitored by two high-level groups that include the leaders of the four services and DuBois' successor. DuBois will soon leaving his position as deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, but he said he will remain a top adviser to Rumsfeld on BRAC.

An attractive factor in the otherwise difficult task, DuBois said, is the estimate of up to $8 billion in annual savings. For fiscal year 2005, President Bush signed a bill authorizing $416.4 billion in defense spending.

"That's an enormous amount of money, and why the service chiefs are so eager to conduct BRAC," he said.

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