ARLINGTON-Closures and realignments of military bases will save only $14 billion – far less than the $48 billion predicted by Pentagon officials, the head of the base-closing commission said as the panel finished three days of deliberations.
Acknowledging it will take days to get a final estimate, Base Realignment and Closure Commission Chairman Anthony Principi said the savings are substantial.
But, Principi saidlate Friday that the panel’s decisions form a “very balanced package” that provides many communities with a smooth transition as bases close or are realigned with new units and missions.
The commission approved most of the Pentagon’s base-closing wish list including the closure of the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington and the wholesale transfer of military and civilian personnel from leased office space in Northern Virginia to military bases.
But, the panel rejected the Pentagon’s plans to close a Connecticut submarine base and Maine shipyard. Against Pentagon wishes, it shut down a Navy airfield in Maine and sent its aircraft to Florida.
In May, the Pentagon recommended closing 33 major bases, realigning 29 large installations and more than 700 other changes to military facilities that would save $48 billion over 20 years.
However, BRAC analysts determined the military overstated the savings because of the way it counted personnel costs. Discounting the cost of military personnel, Principi made the savings estimate much smaller.
Following the final vote, Principi shed some light on the backroom haggling over Virginia Beach’s Oceana Naval Air Station.
Many panel members wanted to close Oceana and move the jets and personnel to Jacksonville, Fla. But, such a move would have required “yes” votes from seven of the panel’s nine members. With two members abstaining because of conflicts of interest, Principi said there were not enough votes to close the base.
A compromise gave Virginia and local officials a chance to save the base.
The commission is requiring state and local officials to condemn all “incompatible property” in so-called accident zones near the airfield’s runways. Such property includes homes, schools and other buildings that may be a safety hazard.
At least $15 million must be spent annually to purchase condemned property, the panel ruled. If the actions are not taken, the jets will fly south to Florida.
Friday, the commission voted for the General Accountability Office to certify that Virginia and Florida meet the panel’s requirements.
On its final day, the commission saved a South Dakota air base and, possibly, a freshman Republican senator’s political career. The nine-member panel also faced some of its toughest decisions — the fate of Air Force and Air National Guard bases.
Action on the Guard bases was further complicated by a federal judge’s ruling Friday afternoon that the Pentagon’s plan to move Air National Guard aircraft from Pennsylvania requires approval by the state’s governor. Pennsylvania and two other states have sued to block the BRAC moves.
The decision to keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., was a blessing for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who defeated Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle last November in part with promises to keep Ellsworth open.
The Pentagon had recommended closing the base, the state’s second largest employer, and critics questioned Thune’s clout.
Since the Pentagon list came out May 13, Thune has fought to save the base. He sponsored legislation to delay the base-closing process. He vigorously lobbied BRAC members. And, for the past three days, he sat through long discussions about other installations.
“I spent more time with the BRAC
Commission than with my wife and family during the last three months,” Thune said Friday.
The fate of Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, N.M., was not so clear.
Pentagon officials wanted to close it and ship its F-16 fighters elsewhere.
The base is the town’s largest employer, and BRAC analysts predicted the town’s economy would drop by nearly 30 percent if the base were shuttered.
The panel decided to transfer the planes but delay closure until December 2009 to give the Air Force time to find another mission for the base. If the Air Force fails to find other uses, Cannon will close in five years.
The commission’s reworking of Pentagon recommendations involving the Air National Guard pushed deliberations into Friday evening.
Hours earlier, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled the Pentagon did not have the authority to move an Air National Guard unit from Pennsylvania without Gov. Ed Rendell’s consent.
Rendell had sued the government in hopes of blocking the proposed move of a fighter wing and 1,000 personnel from Willow Grove, Pa. Under federal law, governors control Guard units unless activated by the Pentagon. Governors in Tennessee and Illinois also have sued to stop the planned moves. A government appeal is likely.
The commission approved the Pentagon recommendations to move the aircraft from Willow Grove to several locations but allowed the base to remain open in caretaker status.
The proposed Air National Guard realignments sparked a revolt as state officials complained that the Air Force had not consulted them.
Many times the Pentagon recommended moving aircraft from Air Guard bases but maintaining a residual presence at the bases. Guardsmen claimed that few personnel would want to move to new locations, often hundreds or thousands of miles away, or serve in a non-flying unit.
The commission made several changes to the Defense Department plans, moving fighters, cargo planes and tankers like chess pieces from one base to another. Some of the moves were done to boost homeland security by placing interceptors at bases along borders or the coasts.
The commission plans to submit its final list to President Bush by Sept. 8. The White House then has until Sept. 23 to forward the list to Congress or send it back for reconsideration. The closure list will go into effect unless Congress passes a joint resolution rejecting it within 45 days.
Once finalized, the Pentagon will have six years to close and realign the bases.
James W. Crawley reports from Washington for Media General News Service.