- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday defended his recommendation to close 33 major domestic bases and to close or consolidate hundreds of smaller installations, calling the sweeping realignment essential in a time of war.

“Those changes are more necessary, not less, during” wartime, Mr. Rumsfeld said as a nine-member congressionally chartered commission opened hearings into the base-closing plan that will go to President Bush this fall and then to Congress.

In past base-closure rounds, the commission has gone along with about 85 percent of what the Pentagon has recommended.

The current panel sounded receptive to what Mr. Rumsfeld had proposed, with some misgivings about the changes targeting National Guard and Reserve units — a distressing omen to affected communities counting on the commission to spare their facilities.

“The department is in need of change and adjustment,” Mr. Rumsfeld told the base-closing commission. “The current arrangement, designed for the Cold War, must give way to new demands of the war against extremism and other evolving challenges in the world.”

Remarks and pointed questions by members of the panel underscored the difficulties ahead for what commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi called an “arduous task and assessment.”

“If your proposals are accepted, they will have profound effects on the communities and people who bring them to life,” said Mr. Principi, the former Veterans Affairs secretary.

Former Rep. James V. Hansen, Utah Republican, told Mr. Rumsfeld he was certain this would be the last round of closures in the face of swelling political opposition.

“Certainly, it’s the last bite of the apple during my watch,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. But, citing the always-changing needs of the military, the defense secretary said: “I would think it may happen again.”

By closing and consolidating facilities at 62 major bases and 775 minor installations, the Pentagon says, it would save about $49 billion over the next 20 years for the additional personnel and equipment it needs.

During questioning, a Democratic member of the panel, former Rep. James H. Bilbray of Nevada, said that “four-fifths of the closures are Guard and Reserve centers” and asked what the impact might be on a war in Iraq that “drags on.”

“None of these units go away,” said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, adding that the centers would just be performing a different role.

Later, speaking with reporters after his testimony, Mr. Rumsfeld said many communities in the past eventually have benefited as a result of base adjustments.

“It’s hard to see when the change is upon you, but change is just simply always hard,” he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld defended the recommendation to close the venerable Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and to shift staff and services to the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md.

“Bringing service members together under one umbrella” would improve the military’s ability to serve its wounded and their families, Mr. Rumsfeld said.

The panel will hold hearings across the country. Once the commission plan is sent, it must be accepted or rejected in its entirety by both the president and Congress.

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