Base Closings - a Sequel

Defense Secretary William Cohen and his team of planners have delivered their promised Quadrennial Review of the country's military needs, and reviews of the review are mixed. But there's one recommendation from this complex exercise that should not be controversial: Close more bases.

Mr. Cohen makes a convincing case that the military's infrastructure (read "bases") must be brought into line with the current size of the armed forces. He foresees the closure of another 50 bases, on top of the 97 already closed in recent years as military manpower and spending shrank from their peak in the mid to late 1980s. The size of the US military will continue to shrink under the new plan, with the proposed elimination of around 100,000 active and reserve forces.

The Pentagon correctly recommends that the dicey process of choosing which bases must go be put in the hands of a bipartisan commission. The commission's findings should be closely followed by Congress, which has the final say.

As a former senator, Cohen knows that "say" is never of one voice. The logic of base closings is usually lost on members of Congress, who know only that the bottom line is lost jobs in their home districts. But there's another, larger bottom line: sensible use of tax dollars.

As Cohen emphasizes, something has to go to free up dollars for needed weapons modernization. Yes, there are other elements in Pentagon planning that could be squeezed - the ongoing, money-devouring development of three new jet fighters, for example, or perennial research funds for a missile-defense umbrella over the US.

Clearly, the priority for Cohen and the military brass is procurement of new weapons after years of reduced spending in that area. But their choices have to be measured against a hard-headed assessment of the defense challenges now facing the country. The goal of a force capable of fighting two major regional wars at once - retained in the Quadrennial Review - could entail more troops and firepower than budget plans, or actual needs, dictate. At the same time, the US remains committed to a major military presence in Europe and Asia, 100,000 troops on each continent.

Sorting out these commitments and priorities is the hard work ahead. Meanwhile, the straightforward task of closing unneeded bases ought to move forward.

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