How to Close Military Bases

As the Defense Department moves toward a leaner and more agile fighting force, no one should be surprised at the consequence - the closing of many out-of-date military bases.

Last month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld restated the need for more base closures around the country in 2005. He revealed hard numbers to support estimates that the military has an excess base capacity of 24 percent. That could mean 100 bases in the US ought to disappear.

For decades, base closings have been vigorously fought by communities and their elected representatives. Even presidential candidate John Kerry said that Mr. Rumsfeld's announcement was more about ideology than being economical.

But the fact remains that many bases that were justified for the cold war aren't needed for today's security challenges. The Pentagon is on firm ground in this latest round of closure selection, especially after 9/11, by making the case that shutting some bases will better protect the US.

As part of the plan, the Pentagon wants to bring different branches of the military together in the same location. That should result in better coordination between the services as well as greater efficiency. And it intends to consolidate active-duty bases with Reserve bases.

Instead of figuring out how to minimize the impact of base closings, Congress and state legislatures are fighting hard to prevent closures. Florida, for instance, has already spent nearly $500,000 by hiring a Washington law firm and a former member of Congress to help protect its 21 bases.

Understandably, large or even small bases can be difficult to give up. For example, Scott Air Force Base in Illinois employs 13,000 people and has some 14,000 military retirees living nearby. Nearly $2 billion helps the local economy annually.

Economic recovery in areas where bases have been closed has been mixed. In Monterey, Calif., for example, closing the Army's Fort Ord training facility didn't have much impact on the diverse economy. But other towns like Vallejo, Calif., and Beeville, Texas, still haven't recovered from base closings near them. Still, for cities severely affected by a closure, the Base Realignment and Closings Commission can recommend economic aid.

The commission's list of recommended base closings will be submitted to Congress next year for a simple up or down vote. In the past, legislators who strongly support the Defense Department have tended not to lose bases in their districts. But both Congress and the Pentagon should not let politics or mutual back-scratching be a part of the equation.

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