Base Commission Gives Pink Slips to Military

CHARLESTON, S.C., got hit hard. So did Michigan's Upper Peninsula. New England squeaked through relatively well, as did Alabama - for now.

The bitter debate over whose military bases should be closed and whose should remain open ended for another year this weekend as a federal base-closing commission wrapped up its work.

Decisions were excruciating, as commissioners repeatedly said. Community fought community for their military jobs. Charleston officials, for instance, tried hard to get the commission to shut down naval facilities in Virginia, Maine, and Texas.

The panel voted instead to close the Charleston naval shipyard and air station, at a stroke eliminating 33,000 jobs from the region.

Michigan, meanwhile, lost K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base. But the panel voted to keep open the Naval Submarine Base at Groton, Conn., which the Pentagon had requested closed. Commissioners similarly went against Defense Department wishes in keeping open Fort McClellan, Ala., the Army's primary chemical-warfare, defense-training facility.

After two previous rounds of base closings in recent years, the commission seemed more inclined to occasionally assert themselves rather than rubber-stamp Pentagon selections.

"They're more activist. Many of the staff-level people are the same from past years, so this is not a learning experience for them," points out Keith Cunningham, an analyst for Business Executives for National Security who follows defense conversion.

The Pentagon has no exact predictions for how much money the base-closing commission's actions will save. Before the panel started work, the Defense Department estimated that closing 31 major bases would save about $3 billion annually, though the shutdowns themselves would cost $1.7 billion.

The commission is scheduled to send its list of proposed closures to President Clinton by Thursday. The president then has until July 15 to either approve the list or send it back to the panel for reconsideration.

If Mr. Clinton approves the list, as expected, he sends it on to Congress. Lawmakers will then have a yes-or-no vote on the list, with no changes allowed.

This is far from the end of the pain of defense downsizing. As the military budget continues to fall, economics points to elimination of yet more jobs, said a senior administration official last week to a group of defense reporters.

Secretary of Defense Les Aspin has vowed to protect the readiness of armed forces. Procurement of new weapons has already been slashed deeply and, in any case, is a difficult area to find quick savings as dollars for a weapon's purchase are typically spread over many years.

That leaves overhead as an obvious target - the bases, maintenance facilities, and other types of infrastructure that grew up to support the military during the flush years of the cold war.

"That's tough to cut," admitted the senior official. "Overhead is rice bowls."

One contentious issue within the military now, for example, is what to do about the Air Force's huge depot maintainance structure.

With the military buying fewer new weapons, defense contractors want a chance to do more of the work that goes on at these bases. Yet depots are major high-wage employers. Any attempt to shift this work elsewhere is sure to spark stiff congressional resistance.

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