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More Military Bases Face Closures Under Bush Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pentagon’s military base-closing program, which hit some California communities hard in the early 1990s, has returned with new force.

The Bush administration, eager to find savings to finance military reform, included in its first budget a strong appeal for several new rounds of base closings. The current inventory of about 500 bases, it said, “wastes money.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 03, 2001 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 3, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Admiral--A story Friday misstated the title of Vernon Clark, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations. He is an admiral.

On Capitol Hill, where base closing efforts have languished in recent years, key lawmakers who opposed the program are showing a new willingness to consider shutting down marginal military installations.

Compared to last year’s political landscape, “the difference is night and day,” said Deborah Lee James, executive vice president of Business Executives for National Security, a defense reform advocacy group in Washington. “There’s been a tremendous change.”

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California was hit harder than any other state in the first four rounds of post-Cold War base closings, which began in 1988 and continued through 1995. Of 97 major facilities that were closed, 29 were in California.

And the strains caused by these closures continue. About 40% of the California sites have serious pollution problems, making it difficult and costly to shift them from military to civilian hands, as planned.

It is difficult to forecast which of California’s remaining 60 bases would be closed in new rounds, since the mission and importance of bases change over time. But in the last round, in 1995, the endangered list included Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station near Oxnard; China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, northeast of Los Angeles, and Beale Air Force Base, northwest of Sacramento, all of which survived.

Bush Sets Excess Base Capacity at 23%

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The state’s 60 functioning bases consist of 10 Army and three Army National Guard posts, 29 Navy bases, six Marine bases and 12 Air Force bases.

Of the roughly 500 bases nationwide, about half are considered major.

The Bush administration’s first budget, unveiled Wednesday, said the Pentagon is burdened with an excess base capacity of about 23%, requiring millions of dollars in unnecessary spending. Officials have not spelled out specifically how many bases they would like to cut, in part because the administration’s long-term plan for defense needs remains under study.

But many outside analysts assume the new team will need every penny of savings it can find, since it has pledged to strengthen the military and hold down federal spending at the same time.

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Advocates of base closings say the first four rounds saved the government $20 billion through fiscal year 2000, and will save $5.5 billion a year thereafter. They predict that new rounds could save an additional $2 billion to $3 billion a year when fully implemented.

The new impetus for closing is attributable not only to Bush’s arrival but also to former President Clinton’s departure.

Congressional Republicans have said in recent years they would not vote for further closings while Clinton was in the White House because of what they considered meddling with a process designed to be nonpartisan.

The GOP members contended that Clinton, eager to ensure he would win vote-rich California, promised to provide compensatory private aircraft maintenance jobs at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento when the military vacated the facility.

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But some advocates of base closings contend that the GOP argument was simply an excuse used by some lawmakers to avoid casting a vote that carries huge political risks.

Now, with Clinton gone, a Republican in the White House and another respected base closing advocate, Donald H. Rumsfeld, in charge of the Pentagon, GOP members are under pressure to support the program.

This week, two longtime advocates of closings, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), introduced legislation calling for additional base closings in 2003 and 2005.

“Every dollar we spend on bases we don’t need is a dollar we cannot spend on training our troops, keeping personnel quality of life at an appropriate level, maintaining force structure, replacing old weapons systems and advancing our military technology,” said McCain, whose legislation was joined by a dozen co-sponsors.

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), whose state is carpeted with military bases, killed base closing legislation in 1998 in a last-minute change of heart.

Now, he says he favors another round of closings, but “only one round, because of the enormity of the effects this has on communities all over the country.”

Warner’s support is crucial, because the legislation hasn’t gotten out of his committee for the last four years.

Another committee member who has been a strong opponent of base closings, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), said he is withholding judgment until he sees the outcome of the Pentagon’s study of military needs.

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Military reform advocates have long argued that excess bases contribute to a far bigger and costlier infrastructure than the United States military will ever need. While the active-duty military force has shrunk by one-third since the end of the Cold War, the inventory of bases has been cut by only one-quarter.

Advocates point to success stories among the roster of converted facilities, such as Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, the first base picked for closure, which lost 4,600 military and civilian jobs. It is now occupied by about 100 private companies that provide 4,100 jobs, and is considered integral to the area economy.

Federal officials contend all of the bases closed in the 1992 and 1993 rounds now have more people working on their sites than when they closed. Most of those closed since 1993 are also doing well, they say.

Yet critics dispute the savings figures. They say it has cost more than anticipated to shut down the old activities, ease the transition for former base employees and clean up base pollution.

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At a congressional hearing this week, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), whose state has two big Army bases, said he has seen little evidence of savings.

Costs of Base Cleanup Cited in California

In California, critics point especially to the difficulty and expense of transforming the 12 most heavily polluted bases, which include El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County and McClellan Air Force Base.

California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, take the view that the state has borne too much of the burden of previous base closings, and oppose further rounds, spokesmen said.

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Advocates of base closings may face another complication: waning enthusiasm on the part of some top military officials.

Through most of the 1990s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly advocated shutting down unneeded bases, hoping they could use the savings to buy new weapons and improve readiness.

But Marine Commandant Gen. James Jones has said he now knows of no facility the Marines can afford to lose. The chief of naval operations, Gen. Vernon Clark, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, have been cautious; only Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Ryan has expressed any enthusiasm for further closings.


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