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Media General News Service May 14, 2005

The South gets military help

By James W. Crawley

WASHINGTON -- The South will gain troops and civilian jobs while other regions lose them under the Pentagon's base closure and realignment plan released Friday.

Nationwide, the military wants to shut down 33 major bases and transfer troops and civilian employees from 29 other large installations.

Nearly 29,000 people will be added to bases in 16 Southern states as the Army and Navy plans to transfer thousands of troops and sailors to bases in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. No other region would have a net gain from the new round of closures.

The Northeast -- especially Connecticut and Maine -- is the big loser in the military's base shuffle, losing more than 21,000 military and civilian positions. Cuts outpaced gains in the Midwest and West also.

In all, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recommended closing 180 military installations, big and small, from Maine to Alaska, over the next six years. After spending $24 billion to close bases and move units and people, the military hopes to save $5.5 billion a year with fewer bases.

The changes are a major part of the Pentagon's effort to transform itself from a Cold War military, built to fight the Soviets in Europe, to a more agile force capable of dealing with threats ranging from terrorism to regional conflicts to peacekeeping and homeland defense.

"Our current arrangements, designed for the Cold War, must give way to the new demands of the war against extremism and other evolving 21st Century challenges,"Rumsfeld said.

The list and several volumes of information were turned over Friday to the independent, nine-member Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. The panel, informally known as the BRAC Commission, will study the recommendations, hold public hearings and decide which bases to close or realign. The commission will send President Bush a final list in September.

Making the list can put a community in crisis mode. During four previous rounds, 85 percent of the Pentagon's proposed closings were approved by the BRAC panel.

The South did well because the U.S. population is shifting southward, and it's cheaper to do business in the South, said military analyst Chris Hellman. In addition, "the South's culture is more favorable to the military," he said.

Also in the South's favor: good weather and rural areas with large tracts for training, said other analysts.

The proposed closure in New England of a submarine base, naval shipyard, Navy airbase and other facilities put Connecticut and Maine on the BRAC chopping block.

The Pentagon proposes a massive consolidation of National Guard and Reserve facilities -- closing 176 hometown Reserve and 211 National Guard armories and building 125 new ones that would contain all services under a single roof.

"The Army National Guard will be a more ready, reliable and accessible force," said Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, National Guard Bureau director.

The reserve consolidation was a major difference from earlier base closing rounds, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent think tank.

"It will be interesting to see how the governors react and how the local sheriffs react," he said. "You've just hit a lot of congressional districts here -- an enormous number."

The Army wants to move thousands of troops into Southern army posts including Fort Benning in Georgia, Alabama's Fort Rucker and Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The Army and Marine Corps armor school will move from Kentucky's Fort Knox to Benning, along the Georgia-Alabama state line. Fort Bragg will receive units from Europe but lose a Special Force group to Florida's Eglin Air Force Base. Moving the Army's aviation supply school from Virginia's Fort Eustis would benefit Rucker.

Florida suffered no major losses and stands to gain jobs at naval air stations in the Jacksonville area.

"We're elated with the recommendation," Gov. Jeb Bush said.

Virginia, the state with the most military personnel, will gain uniforms but lose suits as military personnel are increased but civilian employees are lost in facility realignments -- for a net loss of 1,574 people.

It could have been worse.

In the Washington, D.C., area, dozens, possibly hundreds, of military offices will be moving out of leased space and onto nearby military bases, including Fort Belvoir and Quantico Marine Corps base and Maryland's Fort Meade.

In addition, Virginia picked up personnel at Fort Lee, where the military wants to consolidate several training commands, the Naval Shipyard in Norfolk and other Navy installations.

"This is when you don't want to be boastful about this, because some states really are taking a terrific blow," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

While North Carolina could lose 422 civilian and military personnel, the only proposed closures are two reserve centers.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., credited North Carolina's efforts to boost quality-of-life programs and educational support for military personnel and their families for escaping major cuts. "I believe these qualities make our bases well-positioned for expansion rather than closure," she said.

"No closures is positive news, overall," said North Carolina Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, who has spearheaded the state's defense against BRAC cuts.

The Pentagon announced that the Army's Walter Reed hospital would relocate from Washington, D.C., to Bethesda, Md., site of the Navy's main hospital. The new 300-bed joint hospital will be called Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and care for all services.

Despite worries the Pentagon would call for wholesale shutdowns, Friday's list was in line with previous BRAC rounds in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995, said Hellman with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

"Rather than including large numbers of major closures, the Defense Department's recommendations focus on consolidating smaller facilities and realigning existing missions," he said.

In previous rounds, the Pentagon shuttered 97 major installations and realigned 55 other large bases. The prior downsizing saves the military about $7 billion annually in utilities, personnel and maintenance expenses.

Rumsfeld said this week previous rounds had cut 21 percent of the military's property and that another 20 to 25 percent might be considered excess. But the new BRAC list cut only between 5 and 10 percent, Rumsfeld said Thursday.

The smaller reduction, he added, takes into account the ongoing war on terrorism, plans to move 70,000 U.S. troops back to the States from overseas bases and transferring defense agencies from leased office space to military bases.

The BRAC Commission begins hearings Monday, questioning Rumsfeld, Myers and other top military and civilian Pentagon officials about the recommendations.

Later this month, commissioners will fan out to bases slated to be closed. Regional public hearings during the summer will allow local officials and residents to argue for their bases.

The panel has until Sept. 8 to submit their final list to President

 


Copyright 2005, Media General News Service