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FLORIDA TODAY February 25, 2005

Rumsfeld's vision guides base closures

Patrick not safe despite space duties

By John Yaukey
GANNETT NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The occupation of Iraq may not have gone as planned, but the speed and mobility that led to the fall of Baghdad almost two years ago did.

The three-week campaign stressed technology, intelligence from Special Forces and cooperation between military branches and is the Defense Department's model for warfare in the 21st century.

To get there, the Pentagon wants to cut 25 percent of the capacity at its roughly 400 bases and installations in the United States through a process known as Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). It would be the fifth in a series since 1998.

"If this round (of base closures) is as big as they are saying, it would blow the others out of the water," said defense expert John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and security Web site. The magnitude of the changes will become clearer sometime before May 16 when the Pentagon must submit a list of the bases it wants to cut or realign.

Brevard County is home to Patrick Air Force Base and the 45th Space Wing, which launches unmanned rockets and supports NASA missions. Despite the enormity of its function, it is not automatically immune from the closure list.

That's why, for months, the Coast Defense Alliance, a local coalition of business and government representatives, has been lobbying to make sure Patrick stays off the list.

At stake -- an economic engine that pumps $1.5 billion into the local economy. The base also employs about 12,000 -- or the population of Cocoa Beach.

The overarching principle guiding this process is what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls "transformation."

This is his vision of a post-Cold War fighting force -- designed to fight terrorists and hit global flash points fast and hard. But transformation goes much deeper than merely stressing teamwork and technology.

It means reorganizing the branches of the service so they can train and deploy together better and act more efficiently.

How transformation trickles down and affects local base communities through the base-closing process is not yet clear, but it will trickle. In some cases it will gush.

"Rumsfeld's emphasis on integration and on technology will have very direct consequences for the basing system," said Loren Thompson, who specializes in defense and security at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based public policy think tank.

That's not to say the factors that have affected previous BRAC decisions -- especially politics -- won't come into play this time. They will.

But if Rumsfeld gets his way, transformation will trump them.

"Rumsfeld is in a very powerful position right now," Thompson said. "He has the backing of the White House to do this."

The Pentagon says that all domestic bases are under consideration for closure or realignment, but clearly some are more vulnerable than others.

High on the list, experts say, are old installations and small bases used by only one of the four services. Other targets may include large bases with missions and heavy equipment designed for the Cold War.

Patrick Air Force Base's 920th Rescue Wing has been called into action in Iraq. In addition, Patrick and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station house units from other branches, including Army and Navy units. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is the rocket launch site that is operated under the same command as Patrick.

The Northeast is home to many bases configured to defend against the former Soviet Union and its perceived designs on Western Europe.

Another major transformation factor that promises to affect the process is getting started in the Army, which the Pentagon is converting from a division-based force into a faster, lighter brigade-based structure. Divisions are made up of roughly 20,000 troops, while brigades are about 3,500-5,000 soldiers strong.

But just how this change will play out is not yet clear, in part because of other transformation factors.

The Pentagon also has decided to move nearly 70,000 soldiers now stationed mainly in Europe back home -- somewhere.

These two changes together will likely translate into complex shuffling of brigades from one base to another. What's more, limited space in some regions could mean moving brigades to National Guard facilities that currently do not host any regular Army units.

In the Navy, the capability to project force globally through aircraft carrier groups will remain critical under transformation, although the Pentagon has said it wants to decommission the aging USS John F. Kennedy near Jacksonville.

In the air, Rumsfeld has said, transformation will emphasize getting the biggest bang possible from its newest, most advanced aircraft.

"Where once the Air Force and Navy planned in terms of sorties per target, they now assign targets per sortie," he recently told lawmakers. "A B-2 (stealth) bomber can now be configured to attack as many as 80 different targets with precision munitions on one sortie."

While it's clear in some cases what equipment Rumsfeld wants to retain, it's not evident yet where he wants it. Experts caution that the realignment component in this base-closing round promises to be substantial.

FLORIDA TODAY reporter R. Norman Moody contributed to this story.


Copyright 2005, FLORIDA TODAY.