Commission ‘pulled threads’ from Pentagon plan

By Liz Sidoti: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Despite his plea not “to pull a thread out,” the base closing commission yanked away at Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s intricate plan to restructure military facilities.

The nine-member commission endorsed Rumsfeld’s vision of repositioning the military to face future threats and his effort to streamline the Army, Navy and Air Force. But it made changes — some large, some small, all politically sensitive — to achieve those goals in its own way.

Commissioners showed a willingness to oppose the secretary, who argued that even small changes could compromise the overall plan. In doing so, they opened themselves to criticism that politics influenced their version of the blueprint to restructure bases for the first time in a decade.

Participants in earlier rounds of base closings said it appeared this commission picked different criteria — military value, economic impact or, in some cases, historic significance — to justify some decisions.

“It’s hard to discern a consistent approach,” said David Berteau, who oversaw base closings for the Pentagon in 1991 and 1993.

Rumsfeld told reporters last week that he did not change any part of the proposal, which his staff assembled over two years.

“I looked at it and said that it would be risky for me to try to second-guess all of that and pull a thread out and have some nonintuitive effects that one couldn’t anticipate because I hadn’t spent the two and a half years doing it,” he said.

The commission insists that politics had no role.

The chairman, Anthony Principi, said the commission successfully balanced “proposals to restructure military infrastructure against the human and painful impact of those proposals.”

But within minutes of certain votes, some lawmakers who represent states that lost bases cried foul.

Overruling the Pentagon, the commission voted to keep more than a half-dozen major bases open.

For two of his biggest requests, the Pentagon wanted to close the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn. The commission spared both, saying it feared shutting them down would leave the Northeast vulnerable to attack.

In the most politically contentious reversal, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota won a reprieve. The Pentagon sought to shutter the base that has half of the nation’s B1-B bombers and is in Sen. John Thune’s backyard.

The freshman Republican unseated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in last fall’s election, partly on the strength of his claim that he would be better positioned to help save the base.

The commission found that closing Ellsworth would not save any money over 20 years and could devastate South Dakota’s economy. It also said putting all bombers at one base could pose a risk.

Thune said Ellsworth survived on its merits, not because of politics.

But Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., whose state is set to lose Fort Monmouth, was less certain about the commission’s work.

“Politics — not the security of our country and the safety of our soldiers — is obviously a significant force driving this process. Keeping a Cold War-era base open and closing Fort Monmouth, which is essential to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, makes no sense,” Lautenberg said.

Economic factors, rather than military strategy, largely guided the commission’s decision to keep open — for now and without any aircraft — Cannon Air Force base in Clovis, N.M.

Closing the base, home to three F-16 fighter squadrons, would put at least a 20 percent dent in the local economy, cost almost 5,000 jobs on the base and in the community near the New Mexico-Texas line, the commission found.

The commission scrapped the Air Force’s proposal to restructure the Air National Guard and take away aircraft from more than two dozen Air Guard units. Instead, the commission came up with its own overhaul, saying it more evenly distributed aircraft across the country and ensured that more states had flying units.

Governors feared losing the prestige and security of having a fighter wing. They complained that state military leaders were not consulted about the Air Force’s plan.

Some states even sued, contending the Pentagon had no right to close units without a governor’s consent. The commission’s counsel agreed with the states, only to be overruled by the Justice Department.

Not everything went against Rumsfeld.

Commissioners approved many closures and consolidations. They signed off on much of the Pentagon’s plan to streamline support, administrative, medical and training services to create joint-service “centers of excellence.”

Pentagon officials have kept silent about the commission’s changes.

The commission must turn over its final report to President Bush by Sept. 8. He can accept it, reject it or send it back for revisions. Congress will have a chance to veto the plan in its entirety, but it has gone along with four previous rounds of base closings.

A look at how New Mexico fared before the Base Closure and Realignment Commission this week:

• Cannon Air Force Base:
Commissioners turned down the Pentagon’s recommendation to close Cannon, voting instead to dissolve its fighter wing and send its F-16s elsewhere while leaving the base open as an enclave. The action would leave an unspecified reduced force at the base while the Pentagon searches for a new use for Cannon. However, the Department of Defense could close Cannon if no new mission is identified by Dec. 31, 2009.

• White Sands Missile Range:
The Commission rejected the Pentagon’s plan to move the Army Research Laboratory at White Sands Missile Range to Maryland, thus saving 178 jobs. Supporters argued it would cost more to move the lab to Maryland, where living and operating costs are higher. A BRAC staff analysis noted the Pentagon said an unspecified number of lab workers might have to be kept at White Sands even if the facility were moved. The staff also said it would take 100 years to recoup the cost of moving the lab.

• Holloman Air Force Base:
The Commission unanimously voted to move Holloman Air Force Base’s physiological training center to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and mothball Holloman’s high-onset gravitational force centrifuge. That cost 17 jobs at Holloman, near Alamogordo. The center, established in 1986, actually operated under the auspices of Brooks City Base in San Antonio, Texas.

— AP