WASHINGTON – Safe for a decade, military bases in the United States face an uncertain future.
The Pentagon (search) plans to shut down or scale back some of the 425 facilities, the first such effort to save money in 10 years. The downsizing is part of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's (search) long-term transformation of the Cold War-era military.
The Pentagon chief argues that closing or consolidating stateside facilities could save $7 billion annually and that the money would be better spent improving fighting capabilities amid threats from terrorists.
"The department continues to maintain more military bases and facilities than are needed, consuming and diverting valuable personnel and resources," Rumsfeld recently told lawmakers.
Shrinking the domestic network of Army (search), Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps bases is a certain source of savings. It also is a high-stakes political fight because it affects local economies in congressional districts.
Lawmakers have resisted efforts to shutter their bases, challenging past base closing rounds and lobbying hard to keep their installation off the final list.
"It's the perfect example of good policy and good politics not fitting in the same room together," said Christopher Hellman, an analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington.
"Conceptually, lawmakers buy the argument that base closures are important to make sure they are spending resources wisely. But they are reticent of closing bases in their cities because of job losses," Hellman said.
Rumsfeld has estimated that extra base capacity is at nearly 25 percent. But Republican lawmakers said the secretary recently told them that the cuts will not be as deep, in part because the military needs a home for 70,000 troops returning from Europe.
The Pentagon says that all domestic bases are under consideration, but clearly some are more vulnerable than others.
Topping the list are aging facilities, small bases used by only one of the four services and large installations whose missions, training, ammunition or weapons are outdated.
The Northeast is home to many bases configured to defend against the Soviet threat. They could absorb the biggest hit now that many former Soviet bloc nations are U.S. allies.
Congress authorized the fifth round of Base Realignment and Closure — commonly known as BRAC — last year. The first deadline in the yearlong process is March 15, when President Bush must name a nine-member commission that will review a list of closures that Rumsfeld will propose by May.
Congressional leaders have submitted their six recommendations. Bush will make his three choices known shortly.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., selected retired Gen. John G. Coburn, a former Army deputy chief of staff, and retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., a former supreme allied commander of the Atlantic.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., offered former Rep. James V. Hansen, R-Utah, and former Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada picked former Democratic Rep. James Bilbray, D-Nev. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recommended Phillip E. Coyle, a former Pentagon official and a defense researcher.
As the process gets under way, lawmakers and communities are stepping up efforts to show their bases are essential. They also are lobbying for new missions and projects for their facilities to make the bases less attractive for closure.
Congress authorized the closures last year, rejecting a delay until 2007. Still, some Republicans and Democrats continue to fight.
"I will try to stop it at any point and in any way I possibly can," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. Closing bases while the country is at war is "the worst possible timing," Lott says.
He lobbied hard during previous rounds to keep open the Meridian Naval Air Station in Mississippi, which barely escaped closure. It could be targeted again this year.
Other lawmakers say the round will go forward.
"We had a debate. We voted. We had a majority say we're going forward. How could you possibly reverse it? It would be crazy," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was essential for the military to eliminate "those bases, structures, buildings, compounds that aren't on the very edge of what we need to defend ourselves."
The Pentagon estimates that previous closures in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 eliminated 20 percent of domestic bases and saved about $16.7 billion through 2001, and roughly $7 billion annually since.
Congress has refused repeated requests by the Pentagon to close more bases since 1995. Part of the reason was lingering Republican distrust after President Clinton moved to ease the economic impact from two base closings in vote-rich California and Texas just before his re-election campaign in 1996.
In 2001, with Clinton out of office, the Pentagon nearly got its wish for closures in 2003. But after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress delayed the closures until this year.