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Amid base-closing uncertainty, CONUS construction budget takes a hit

By Lisa Burgess,

Stars and Stripes European edition, Wednesday, February 6, 2002

ARLINGTON, Va. - The Bush administration is gutting its construction budget request for CONUS bases for 2003 rather than waste money on improvements to facilities that may close by the end of the decade, senior Pentagon officials said Monday.

The $379 billion defense budget proposal for 2003 sent by the Pentagon to Capitol Hill lawmakers on Monday includes only $4.8 billion in military construction funds in 2003, compared with the $6.5 billion spent in 2002.

The reason for the decline, Pentagon officials say, is because Congress has decided to delay the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program until 2005.

Overseas construction is not affected by concerns about BRAC.

Congress enacted BRAC in 1988, and amended it in 1990, as a way to reduce the number of military installations in the United States that were no longer needed, thanks to the thawing of the Cold War and subsequent drawdown of U.S. forces.

There have been four BRAC rounds to date, each accomplished only after intense fighting among members of Congress - each of whom fought mightily to avoid the political fallout that would result when a base closed and constituent jobs went with it.

Nevertheless, as of July 2001, 112 bases have been closed and 27 bases realigned and consolidated.

But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says that another BRAC round is desperately needed in order to eliminate what may be as much as 25 percent in excess infrastructure.

The unneeded bases are eating away at funds that could be better spent for modernization, a senior defense official told Pentagon reporters Friday.

Last year, Rumsfeld begged lawmakers for another BRAC round to be scheduled in 2003.

But the secretary lost his fight: Congress voted in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act to authorize one more round of closings - but not until 2005.

Meanwhile, the law does not allow the Pentagon to signal in any way to Congress which bases defense officials believe should be closed, the official said.

"You have to treat all bases equally when spending money on military construction, including the 20 [percent] to 25 percent that you don't need," the official said.

So rather than program funds to fix facilities that might soon be closed, Pentagon officials decided to cut spending on military construction in 2003 to a bare minimum.

Unfortunately, the whole process "begs [a new] question," the official said. "If you're not closing these places, are you going to let them rot?"

Nor can the Pentagon afford, in a time of war, to send its personnel the message that military leaders don't care enough about their welfare to keep facilities up to par, the official said.

The result is a construction strategy that treads a very fine line: enough money spent to ensure servicemembers will not suffer, but not so much that new construction will be wasted by the time the fifth BRAC is done.

That strategy calls for an increase - albeit slight - in servicewide spending on family housing: from the $4.1 billion allocated by Congress in 2002 to the $4.2 billion requested by the Pentagon for 2003.

"Would we like to spend more on military construction in 2003?" the official said. "Yes - but we are constrained by the BRAC."

The Pentagon's decision to drop its military construction budget in 2003 "is the right thing to do," a senior Army officer said Friday. "This will cut the [logistics] tail off a little."

At the same time, however, the Army official said he was grateful that the Army (including the Army Reserve and National Guard) got $2.3 billion for construction in 2002, an unusual spike in the Army's construction spending pattern.

The Armywide 2001 construction appropriation was $1.4 billion, while the 2000 budget was $1.5 billion.

The Army's 2003 construction request is $1.6 billion, back to its pre-2002 level.

"That 2002 spike sure helped" the Army's efforts to improve its base facilities, especially helping to fund better housing, the Army official said.

The Navy/Marine Corps and the Navy Reserve's 2003 construction request is $1.42 billion, compared with $1.66 billion allocated by Congress in 2002.

The Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard's total 2003 construction request is $1.49 billion, compared to $2.22 billion in 2002.

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