Basing Tomorrow's Military

If nothing else, the war in Iraq gives us some idea of what we can expect from our military in the future.

We'll see more personnel and equipment being moved into position more quickly than ever before. We'll see more cooperation among the various branches and less duplication.

Tomorrow's armed forces will be geared toward a new era in conflict, characterized not by the structure and long lead times we knew in the Cold War (search) but by spontaneity -- and a propensity for things to go from fine to disastrous in minutes -- that we've never before faced to this extent.

The emphasis on responding rapidly and traveling light, the new momentum toward integration and cohesion, coupled with traditional considerations of efficiency and cost containment, should guide the Department of Defense as it begins its fifth and possibly final round of base realignment and closures.

The commission should operate from five basic precepts. It should:

-- Encourage basing that makes it easier for the various branches to conduct joint operations and training. Inter-service rivalry is fine for the Army-Navy football game, but we no longer can afford it in practice --financially or strategically.

--Give preference to bases in sparsely populated areas where the local citizenry would be unlikely to protest training exercises and other activities. In recent years, growing populations have encroached on a variety of facilities, and a variety of concerns, environmental and otherwise, have forced the bases to curtail critical training and other activities. The Navy, for example, decided to stop using Vieques (search), an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, to practice bombing runs because activists complained about the noise. In California, Camp Pendleton and Fort Irwin have been forced to curtail training exercises because of environmental concerns.

--Look outside our borders. Why limit the search for bases that could be closed to the United States? We also should consider foreign bases established to meet the challenges of the Cold War. Many of these bases aren't fitted for the nature of today's warfare or for the force structure likely to emerge after we transform our military. We also should consider the political vulnerability of bases: Those in countries where our troops stand a good chance of being targeted by anti-American politicians should be prime candidates for closing.

--Do everyone -- the military, the taxpayers who support it and the politicians -- a favor and consider all bases fair game for closure. This is the best way to ensure the integrity of the process, to head off criticisms that it's been politicized -- and to ensure we keep the most important bases. All politicians then could breathe easy: Base closings can't become political issues if we all can be confident the process was carried out absent political considerations.

--Minimize excess infrastructure and increase efficiency. Of course, where our security is concerned, strategic considerations trump efficiency. But for maximum efficiency on the battlefield, the Pentagon must make its support system as efficient as possible. Which doesn't mean it should cut too close to the bone: Should the security climate change suddenly, the military would need a "surge capacity" up and running to meet new, tougher demands.

As many noticed during the war in Iraq, our military neither needs nor wants a wholesale transformation. Besides, anyone who pushes for one is likely to run into opposition and, ultimately, failure. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is right to call for gradual change, for ways to make the services cooperate more with each other and for ways to make that cooperation more productive. Basing decisions can assist in that process and save his Department (and hence the taxpayers) a substantial amount of money.

The move toward removing politics from decision-making paid tremendous dividends in the four previous rounds of base closings. Now, we've reached the next frontier -- using basing decisions to encourage change and cooperation, to minimize ecological damage and to strengthen alliances abroad. If the process goes as it should, all of this will be taken into consideration, and we'll emerge with a more efficient, more cooperative, more effective military.

Jack Spencer is senior policy analyst for defense and national security at The Heritage Foundation.