WASHINGTON – A congressionally chartered panel of military experts said Monday the Pentagon (search) should slow its withdrawal of troops from Europe and Asia and should keep in Germany one of the two heavy armored units currently scheduled to return to the United States.
"We're saying slow this down, step back, take a breath," said Al Cornella, chairman of the Overseas Basing Commission (search), whose report includes findings the Pentagon strongly disputes. "Let's look at it and determine how" to accommodate the troops who are brought home, he said.
The commission also said it believes the Pentagon has underestimated the cost of repositioning U.S. forces abroad. It's likely to cost closer to $20 billion than the $8 billion to $12 billion estimated by the Pentagon, the panel said in its report to Congress and President Bush.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said arrangements are in place to build housing and other facilities required for the return of an estimated 70,000 troops and 100,000 family members. Most of those are returning from Germany, but some also will come home from South Korea.
Whitman said that while the Pentagon appreciates the commission's work, "the analysis has significant flaws and suffers from inaccuracies in its findings."
He said the commission was wrong to conclude that the Pentagon has not adequately coordinated with other government agencies and with members of Congress, and he disputed the panel's finding that overseas changes should await decisions on domestic military base closures.
Whitman said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's recommendations on which domestic bases to close or realign -- to be disclosed no later than May 16 and possibly later this week -- have taken into account the need to accommodate the 70,000 troops returning from overseas.
"We have plans, we know where they're going to go" once they get to the United States, and the Pentagon has determined where additional facilities will be built to accommodate them, Whitman said.
His comment underscored the fact that unlike previous rounds of domestic base closures, this one will in some cases result in base expansions, in addition to the closings and realignments.
Rumsfeld said in a conference call with newspaper editorial writers last week that the return of 70,000 troops and their families is one reason the Pentagon has lowered its estimate of the surplus base capacity it needs to eliminate. Rather than 20 percent to 25 percent, as previously estimated, the reduction may be half that, Rumsfeld said, according to three editorial writers who participated in the call.
Another reason the estimated base surplus has been reduced is that the Pentagon has found it can move some people from leased space onto government-owned space, thereby saving lease costs and making greater use of space on existing bases, Rumsfeld was reported to have said.
The Overseas Basing Commission did not focus on the specifics of domestic base closings, but addressed instead the Pentagon's plan for repositioning U.S. forces overseas -- to include the plan to bring home 70,000 troops from Asia and Europe.
Cornella told a news conference Monday that the commission recommends keeping in Europe a 4,000-soldier heavy combat brigade that is scheduled for return to the United States. He and other commission members said this would provide a security hedge against unexpected threats in the European region, as well as enhance cooperation with NATO (search)allies.
The commission also recommended that Marines now stationed at Futenma Marine Corps Air Station (search)on Okinawa, Japan, be moved either to Kadena air base (search) on Okinawa or to Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station (search), on Honshu, the main Japanese island.