- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

As the Pentagon prepares for its first base closings in a decade, it is clear that this round will be unlike any before, both in scope and intent.

The Defense Department has made no secret of the fact that the list of suggested closings this year is the biggest in history. But unlike past rounds, when the focus was on paring down a bloated military, the goal this year is to recast the military.

For about 50 years, the United States aligned its bases against the Soviet Union, keeping critical air squadrons in the safety of the heartland.

Now, in what could be a boost for bases as far afield as Guam and as close as the Carolinas, the diffuse threats call for flexibility and quick deployment to the far reaches of the world.

As a result, the list that is to be presented to Congress on May 16 is expected to be not only a way to cut costs, but also a way to reflect the changing character of the military’s mission.

“That is unique to this round,” said Tim Ford, executive director of the Association for Defense Communities in Washington. “What they’re trying to do is much more broad. It’s a transformation.”

The transformation goes well beyond base closures. Under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the military is reinventing itself — shifting from massive divisions toward smaller and more agile brigades. Base closures and realignments represent a way to make these changes stick.

It is one of the Defense Department’s strongest tools for change. Once the Pentagon presents its recommendations in May, an independent commission will look at the list and either revise it or endorse it unchanged. Then Congress and the president must vote yes or no on the whole list; neither can make changes. The previous four rounds — in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 — closed 97 bases.

“Today’s environment requires more agile, fast and lean forces able to project power into theaters that may be distant from where they are based,” Philip Grone, a deputy undersecretary of defense, told Congress this month. “This agility requires not only a shift in military forces, capabilities and equipment, but also a new basing strategy.”

The question is: Which bases fit the Pentagon’s new strategy? Not surprisingly, the Pentagon has said little. Many military installations employ thousands of civilians and infuse billions of dollars into local economies, so any leak would flood the Pentagon with lobbyists and legislators pleading for their bases.

Yet there are clues.

When Mr. Rumsfeld announced his criteria this year for deciding which bases should be saved, cost came fourth. Before that were flexibility in dealing with fluctuating numbers of troops, space for training and — uppermost — the ability to respond to the needs of future missions, as well as the needs of the different branches of the military.

Almost certainly, future missions will value rapid response over the geographic isolation of the Cold War years, and that could change the footprint of U.S. bases. The shift could benefit many American bases, because the Pentagon is likely to cut back on major installations overseas in favor of smaller outposts worldwide. Most of those troops will return to U.S. bases.

The Pentagon once suggested that it had as much as 24 percent excess capacity at its more than 400 bases.

“The fact that we’re bringing so many forces home from overseas reduces that number,” said Mr. Rumsfeld in a recent briefing. A realignment of forces could occur within the United States as well, as the military gravitates toward coastal states — many with cheap land and supportive congressional delegations.

“Any favorably located place like Hawaii or … the Carolinas will probably receive missions rather than lose them in the future,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. “Contrast a base in the Carolinas with a base in the nation’s interior, which is far from the coast and difficult to deploy.”

The desire to have bases serve joint functions is perhaps one of the strongest clues to Mr. Rumsfeld’s view of the future. For decades, the military branches — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines — have acted like fiefdoms, each working largely independently of the others. Mr. Rumsfeld wants a more seamless military, and putting multiple branches on one base is seen as an efficient, potent way to recast the armed forces’ culture and cooperation.

“The department is looking to maximize the utility of whatever bases it has,” said Jeremiah Gertler of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re looking for more flexibility and versatility.”

In small ways, the process has already begun. Langley Air Force Base in Virginia is integrating active members of the Air Force with members of the National Guard. Now the Air National Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing will train at Langley, even flying the new $150 million F/A-22 Raptor.

It’s a small step, but one that might be indicative of the future.

“Looking at the challenges ahead, how do we integrate the Guard and Reserve more effectively?” asked Maj. Jeff Glenn of Langley’s 1st Fighter Wing. “This is just a test case … but maybe a mind-set changes.”

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