Behind base votes: skepticism of Pentagon

A Desire to transform the military wasn't enough for Pentagon to win its bid to close some major bases.

By overruling almost all of the Pentagon's most controversial decisions last week, an independent commission may have made this round's list of base closings more palatable - improving its chances of passing Congress this autumn.

But it also indicated that the commission and members of Congress are less willing to trust the Pentagon's judgment, raising questions about the strength of the Pentagon's influence on Capitol Hill.

In the end, the unwieldy Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process might have at last outgrown its original purpose.

No longer is the base-closure process a mechanism simply for getting rid of abandoned bases, as it was after the cold war, when the military was shrinking. Now it is a strategic tool, allowing the Department of Defense to shift its forces around the chessboard of American bases for the war on terror.

The Pentagon probably got enough of what it wants to deem this round a success. Yet the fact that this round began with talk of this being the "mother of all base closures" but is now nearing a comparatively humble conclusion indicates that there are limits to what the process will allow in the name of tactical tinkering.

"This base closure is the roar that moused," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "It started out being very ambitious, but ended up being modest."

From ambitious to modest

That modesty, however, could be its salvation.

Such was the controversy over the Pentagon's original plans that some experts felt it could well have been rejected by Congress - something that had never happened in the previous rounds.

But the revisions by the BRAC Commission - including the decision to keep open major installations such as the Naval Submarine Base in New London, Conn., the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota - might have quieted many of the most influential critics.

"This round of base closures lost core people that carried BRAC in the first place," says Jeremiah Gertler, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies here, who once worked on the BRAC Commission. Now, he adds, the commission "has disarmed the bulk of those people."

The fact that the BRAC panel deviated from the Pentagon on almost every major base closure suggests that on the biggest decisions, where the most money and jobs were at stake, there are doubts about the Pentagon's wisdom.

Part of this could be politics - analysts suggest that this panel was particularly open to local concerns, and that local governments have learned how to lobby the panel more effectively. Others note that previous rounds have made all the easy cuts, leaving the Pentagon with only harder choices.

But there was also a clear shift in this round that holds significance for the future.

Since the military is no longer shrinking as rapidly as it did immediately after the cold war, it is less imperative to trim bases. Base-cutting and realignment, then, becomes a matter of prerogative, not necessity. The Pentagon hoped its desire to transform the military would be enough to carry the day, but with the biggest bases it was not.

To some, this is a sign that the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's clout is waning as doubts over Iraq spread. "His influence is at a low ebb and the commission is one more example of that," says Dr. Thompson.

In truth, the BRAC panel didn't make an unusually high number of changes to the Pentagon's proposals, and the overall list should allow the Defense Department to continue recasting its military as a smaller, more agile force better suited to meet the unpredictable threats of the war on terror.

"This will pave the way for future transformation," says George Lauffer, who writes a newsletter about BRAC for Potomac Advocates, a Washington-based consulting firm.

The biggest remaining question centers around a lawsuit filed by the governor of Pennsylvania against the Pentagon. He argues that the Pentagon cannot take away airplanes from the state National Guard without consulting him, and a judge found in his favor Friday.

The Pentagon is expected to appeal, but other governors disgruntled by plans to take away their state's National Guard aircraft might also sue.

The future of realignment

It points to the entanglements of reshaping the military. Yet in a time when there is no predominant threat to the United States, the Pentagon's mission could again shift dramatically as unforeseen events unfold - creating the need for another realignment.

With the political acrimony of this round, and the panel's apparent unwillingness to make tough decisions, however, some wonder how that evolution will continue.

"This round was more about realigning than closing, and that's going to be the case in the future," says Christopher Hellman of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation here. Noting that Congress often impedes the Pentagon's plans to move units, he adds, "What's going to be the mechanism for that?"

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