Pentagon's long list of bases to close

Next month's proposal for the biggest-ever round of cuts could transform both the military and many communities.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the Pentagon prepares to embark on its first base closings in a decade, it is already clear that this round will be unlike any that has come before, both in its scope and its intent.

The Defense Department has made no secret of the fact that this year's list of suggested closings figures to be the biggest in history. But unlike past rounds, when the process focused primarily on paring down a bloated military, the goal this year is largely to recast the military.

For 50 years, the United States aligned its bases against the Soviet foe, enfolding critical air squadrons in the safety of the heartland, and supporting America's military heft at massive industrial bases.

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Now, in what could be a boost for bases as far afield as Guam and as close as the Carolinas, the diffuse threats of a new century call for a strategy of flexibility and quick deployment to the far reaches of the world.

As a result, the list presented to Congress May 16 is expected to be not only a way to cut costs, but also a way to reflect the changing character and shape of the military's mission.

"That is unique to this round," says Tim Ford, executive director of the Association for Defense Communities here. "What they're trying to do is much more broad. It's a transformation."

The transformation goes well beyond base closures. Under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the military is in large part reinventing itself, shifting its emphasis from massive divisions toward smaller and more agile brigades. Base closures and realignments represent a way to make these changes adamantine, replacing iron-cast cold-war installations with a more malleable network.

It is one of the Defense Department's strongest tools for change. Once the Pentagon presents its recommendations in May, an independent commission will look at the list and either revise it or endorse it unchanged. Then the Congress and the president must vote yes or no on the whole list; neither can make changes. The previous four rounds - in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995 - closed 97 bases.

"Today's environment requires more agile, fast, and lean forces able to project power into theaters that may be distant from where they are based," said Philip Grone, a deputy undersecretary of Defense, in a statement to Congress last week. "This agility requires not only a shift in military forces, capabilities, and equipment, but also a new basing strategy."

The question, then, is which bases fit the Pentagon's new strategy. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon has said little. Many military installations employ thousands of civilians and infuse billions of dollars into local economies, so any leak would flood the Pentagon with lobbyists and legislators pleading for their bases.

Yet there are clues. When Secretary Rumsfeld earlier this year released his criteria for deciding which bases should be saved, cost came fourth. Before that were flexibility in dealing with fluctuating numbers of troops, space for training, and - No. 1 - the ability to respond to the needs of future missions, as well as the needs of the different branches of the military.

Almost certainly, future missions will value rapid response over the geographic isolation of the cold-war years, and that could change the footprint of America's bases. In one sense, the shift could benefit many American bases, since the Pentagon is likely to cut back on a number of major installations overseas in favor of smaller outposts dotted across the globe. Most of those troops will return to US bases.

The Pentagon had once suggested that it had as much as 24 percent excess capacity at its more than 400 bases. "The fact that we're bringing so many forces home from overseas reduces that number," said Rumsfeld in a recent briefing. A realignment of forces could occur within the US, as well, as the military gravitates toward coastal states - many with cheap land and supportive congressional delegations.

"Any favorably located place like Hawaii or ... the Carolinas will probably receive missions rather than lose them in the future," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. "Contrast a base in the Carolinas with a base in the nation's interior, which is far from the coast and difficult to deploy."

The desire to have bases serve joint functions is perhaps one of the strongest clues to Rumsfeld's view of the future. For decades, the military branches - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines - have acted like fiefdoms, each working largely independently of the others. Rumsfeld wants a more seamless military, and putting multiple branches on one base is seen as an efficient, potent way to recast the armed forces' culture and cooperation.

"The department is looking to maximize the utility of whatever base it has," says Jeremiah Gertler of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They're looking for more flexibility and versatility."

In small ways, the process has already begun. Langley Air Force Base in Virginia is integrating active members of the Air Force with members of the Guard. Now the Air National Guard's 192nd Fighter Wing will train at Langley, even flying the new $150 million FA-22 Raptor.

It's a small step, but one that may be indicative of the future.

"Looking at the challenges ahead, how do we integrate the Guard and Reserve more effectively?" asks Maj. Jeff Glenn of Langley's 1st Fighter Wing. "This is just a test case ... but maybe a mind-set changes."

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