Military Bases, Dismissed

The Defense Department wants to create a leaner, more agile fighting force capable of dealing with more diffuse global threats. That obviously involves shuttering the remnants of the Pentagon's old-style approach to the relatively fixed military problems of the cold war. Simply put, that means closing more military bases around the country. Announcements to that end - the first in a decade - could be made as early as this week.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reported figures last year that showed that even with the previous rounds of base closings that began in 1988, the military still had an excess base capacity in the US of some 24 percent. That could mean closing an additional 100 of the military's 425 major bases.

However, Mr. Rumsfeld has since suggested that the excess base capacity is now thought to be about half of the original estimate, as some 70,000 troops and 100,000 of their dependents slated to move stateside from Europe and Asia will need a place to go.

Still, the number of closings on Rumsfeld's list could be significant, although they can be easily justified: Since the end of the cold war, the number of armed forces personnel has dropped by about 40 percent, while the number of bases has dropped by just 20 percent.

Unfortunately, protecting bases from the Pentagon's ax remains a white-hot political issue, with members of Congress anxious about losing their jobs if bases in their home states or districts close. And a copious amount of lobbying money has been spent by cities and states to help forestall or prevent such closings. However, that kind of lobbying, and the fear behind it, reflects a short-sighted vision.

Constituents and lawmakers who feel that shutting bases will hurt more than help ought to focus on the revenue-generating possibilities for bases that have outlived their current usefulness.

Cities, states, and Congress can take note of a recent Government Accountability Office report that showed communities, even though slow to recover, had regained some 85 percent of the civilian jobs lost in the previous rounds of base closings.

Many closed bases have been successfully redeveloped for residential or commercial use. Others have been converted to wildlife sanctuaries. President Bush himself recently suggested one of the many potential uses for a closed base: building new petroleum refineries.

But perhaps the biggest base closings bonus: an estimated $29 billion in taxpayer savings from 1988 through 2003, and $7 billion a year since then, according to the GAO report.

Community recovery following a base closing obviously isn't quick, or easy. But for both the military and communities, thoughtful strategies can be well worth the effort in the longer term.

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