With a painful plan to close some bases, Rumsfeld launches a new round of reform
After five years of preaching the necessity of a nimbler military, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week took perhaps the most important step in the quest to turn his vision of the future into reality.
The announcement that the Defense Department would propose closing 33 of the nation's 425 major bases sent shudders through communities from Kittery, Maine, to Clovis, N.M. While some cities like Corpus Christi, Texas, would probably little notice the economic impact of the closure, other places, like Rapid City, S.D., would surely feel the loss of their bases acutely. Although Rumsfeld and other officials acknowledged the economic turbulence to come, they emphasized that they were taking advantage of an opportunity to reorganize the armed forces and change the way the nation fights.
There have been four previous rounds of base realignment and closure--BRAC in Pentagon patois--since 1988, and they were all fundamentally about saving money by doing away with unneeded facilities. The government estimates it saved $29 billion between 1988 and 2003 by closing 97 major bases and scores of minor facilities. This time around the Pentagon certainly intends to save money--a projected $49 billion to $64 billion over two decades. But today reshaping the military is as important as reducing waste. With brigades of tanks stationed in Europe, overlapping domestic research facilities, underused naval stations, and duplicative training centers, Rumsfeld believes America's bases are still arrayed for yesterday's fight, not tomorrow's. "Current arrangements pretty much designed for the Cold War must give way to the new demands of war against extremists and other evolving 21st-century challenges," Rumsfeld said.
As a result, the Pentagon's list contained more reshuffling than outright closure. Fort Knox, Ky., for example, would lose its armor center and school to Fort Benning, Ga., which already has the Army's infantry school--but it would receive a new brigade and combat support units returning from overseas. Each service has a list of shuffled combat brigades, ships, and fighter squadrons. "We got to ask ourselves: If we were king for a day, how would we redo the Air Force?" says Maj. Gen. Gary Heckman, who helped oversee that service's realignment.
No meddling. The realignment of bases provides Rumsfeld with perhaps his most important opportunity to reshape the military for years to come. Although the secretary has managed to kill off some weapons programs he regards as legacies of the Cold War, many of his attempts at modernization have been hampered by lawmakers. But the base closure system has been well designed to keep congressional meddling to a minimum. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, appointed by President Bush, will now review the Pentagon recommendations and has until September to make changes, though major revisions are unlikely. President Bush then reviews the list and sends it to Congress, which must consider the proposal as a whole; if the legislators don't reject it within 45 days, the closure recommendations go into effect.
Still, there is sure to be congressional opposition. New England was particularly hard hit by the proposed loss of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and the New London submarine base in Connecticut. Those decisions will most likely spark a fight, despite Congress's limited ability to tinker with the list. The restrictions have increased the amount of grumbling about the process in recent years, and so this round of realignment is likely to be Rumsfeld's last. "You have one shot, and you are not going to have another for a decade," says Ken Beeks, vice president of Business Executives for National Security.