US Military Cuts Threaten State, Regional Economies

Politicians expected to scramble to protect local jobs from base closures

IT is a typical office for a Pentagon big shot. First off, it's huge. There's a great view of Washington's monuments. The carpet is the deep ocean blue that says "senior official" and real paneling graces the walls.

But it's empty. In frenetic Washington that seems eerie. No paper of any sort shows on the desk. There aren't any small tanks or plastic planes or photos of the occupant meeting the president.

As Defense Secretary Les Aspin completes his team, an appointee will eventually take up residence here.

Visitors will not use the space for meetings. But for the moment the vacant office stands as a symbol of the job cuts and economic pain that accompany defense downsizing.

After all, if it were a corporation the Pentagon would easily be the largest in the world, with revenue almost twice that of General Motors. Its budget is more than three times larger than the gross domestic product of Saudi Arabia.

When an entity that big shrinks, lots of offices stand empty. Whole regions of the United States depend on defense spending for economic health. The uproar over the Pentagon's list of bases proposed for closure shows what happens when this support is taken away. People scream - never mind the federal deficit, or the end of the cold war.

Politics comes into play, and inevitably it will interfere with Secretary Aspin's efforts to cut spending while keeping as efficient a force as possible.

"This is where the real challenge of restructuring the US military comes in," notes Steven Wolfe, a researcher at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

Many Americans who don't live in an area visibly dependent on military spending, such as San Diego or Norfolk, Va., perhaps don't understand just how pervasive the military is.

Consider a few more statistics: Defense Department employees account for 60 percent of all the people that work for the federal government. Throw in workers in the civilian defense industry, and you've got almost 5 percent of the US labor force, according to Pentagon figures.

Some areas are exceptionally dependent on defense.

In southeastern Connecticut 1 in 5 workers has a military-related job, according to the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Fort Ord, in northern California, has already been tapped for closure; by one estimate the action could increase unemployment in the Monterey, Calif., area by 9 percentage points.

Thus the compiling of a list of more bases that might be closed has set hundreds of politicians scrambling throughout America. In Congress alone defense of a base or a weapons plant can be a preoccupying activity for an entire legislative career.

Listen to Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph Riley talking about his threatened local Navy facilities: "This is the biggest challenge this community has faced ... maybe since the Civil War." Or Illinois Rep. John Porter (R) on the endangered Great Lakes Naval Base: "We have to make sure Great Lakes is not on that list by July 1," when closures are supposed to be finalized. 20 percent cut projected

That economic dislocation is coming is sure. Base closings are only part of it.

Steven Kosiak of the Defense Budget Project figures that under Clinton's plan the Pentagon budget of 1998 will be about 20 percent smaller than it is today. Former President Bush's budget would have cut military spending by about 8 percent, though there is some question about the solidity of Bush defense budget figures.

The Clinton administration is betting on federal aid for defense conversion to help ease the turmoil of the transition to the New World Military.

It is surely no accident that as of this writing Clinton was set to announce the details of his defense conversion budget one day before Secretary Aspin's announcement of the base hit list. Transition aid budgeted

Much of the $1.5 billion conversion package will go for worker retraining, early-retirement incentives, and other direct cushioning.

About $160 million is reportedly earmarked for developing economic plans to aid hard-hit communities.

Another chunk of $500 million or so will go to encourage Pentagon contractors in the development of military technology that also has civilian applications.

Contractors of middle size appear to be those who would most benefit. In Washington on March 10, the head of General Dynamics was dismissive of the prospects defense conversion holds for large weapons manufacturers.

For instance, chairman William Anders said that in a major area of General Dynamics expertise - nuclear submarines - only one of the existing two producers would likely survive. The builder left standing might have to become a quasi-government entity, Mr. Anders said.

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