Panel seems generally receptive to Pentagon's closure proposals

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

WASHINGTON -- A commission charged with reviewing the Pentagon's proposal to close or downsize 62 major domestic military facilities sounded largely receptive as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testified Monday that the sweeping reorganization was vital to U.S. success in the war on terrorism.

"The changes are essential in helping us win in this conflict," the Pentagon chief said, adding that eliminating unneeded property to save money for combat capabilities was "more necessary, not less, during a time of war."

The first round of base closings in a decade seeks to save $48.8 billion over 20 years by streamlining services across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, shutting down bases deemed inefficient, and promoting cooperation among the four branches.

Overall, it aims to restructure a military configured to defend against Soviet threats into one focused on terrorist threats of today.

"If we don't make some of this happen, we're going to be stuck in the Cold War mind set for a long time to come," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the nine-member commission.

With the exception of skepticism over recommended changes to National Guard and Reserve units, the panel sounded open to the overall plan to close or reduce forces at 62 major bases and 775 minor installations.

Dozens of other facilities would grow, absorbing troops from domestic and overseas U.S. bases slated for closure or downsizing.

Rumsfeld warned the panel that tinkering with one facility -- or try to "pull a thread" -- could cause plans for other parts of the U.S. defense network to unravel.

"One must be careful about taking a selective look at individual components or pieces of these recommendations without considering how those components or pieces fit into the larger whole," he said.

Commission chairman Anthony Principi told Rumsfeld that the panel "noted the complexity" of the proposal.

"It'll make our work harder, but certainly we understand that and we'll certainly take it into consideration as we look at the seamless whole and not just an individual military installation," said Principi, a former veterans affairs secretary under President Bush.

Several commission members praised the Pentagon's efforts to eliminate redundancy -- and expenses -- by consolidating support offices and some operations across the four services.

"You've made great progress," said panelist Samuel Knox Skinner, a former secretary of transportation under President George H.W. Bush. "I think everybody here supports where it makes sense: joint training, joint logistical work, joint technical work, and all of those things where they are very expensive to duplicate and replicate across this country, and I think you've taken a great step."

Such receptiveness could be a bad sign for communities hoping to persuade the panel to spare facilities slated for closure or downsizing. Previous commissions -- in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 -- changed only about 15 percent of what the Pentagon proposed.

The commission will spend the next few months deciding whether to change the report before sending a final report to President Bush and Congress this fall.

During questioning, a Democratic member of the panel, former Rep. James H. Bilbray of Nevada, questioned the impact of closing scores of Guard and Reserve units on recruiting and retention during a war in Iraq that "drags on." "You're going to have a real enlistment problem with the Guard and Reserve," he said.

Skinner also noted that 65 percent of closures are Guard and Reserve facilities and expressed concern about how far members of those facilities would have to travel to fulfill their duties. "It's got to work for them if you're going to recruit at the levels you need to," he said.

Gen. Myers defended the massive reorganization of Guard and Reserve forces, saying it will "help the reserve component modernize, improve their mobilization processes and transform for the 21st century security environment." He also said the centers would just be performing a different role and "none of these units go away."

And, Rumsfeld said those who move from their hometowns and still want to serve could locate the closest facility. "It's important to remember the population is not static," he said.

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