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San Diego Union-Tribune May 4, 2005

County's facilities probably safe, say defense experts

By Rick Rogers

Handicapping U.S. military bases for the next round of closings is more art than science, but some see a payday for San Diego County at the finish line.

The Defense Department is expected to nominate scores of the country's roughly 425 major installations for closure or adjustments by May 16. Its list will go to a nine-member federal commission that yesterday started briefings on the Base Realignment and Closure process, or BRAC. Which bases will land on the list has military communities from coast to coast abuzz and defense experts trying to pick the winners. "I'm guessing the military will follow the civilian population by moving units to the Southeast and West," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer for the Lexington Institute, an independent public policy research group in Arlington, Va.

He said he expects Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas to come out winners. Those states have bases that can accept new units, have traditionally supported the military and still benefit from a relatively low cost of living.

"The West should come out second best," Thompson added. "In general, San Diego is quite safe because it has critical mass for the Navy and Marine Corps. It is more likely to attract than lose folks. I think the Northeast is going to do quite badly."

Other experts weren't so sure the BRAC list, which could contain upward of 130 sites, would follow a geographical trend. But even they see good signs for San Diego County.

"I am puzzled as to where base closure is going to come from," said John Pike, a defense analyst from GlobalSecurity.org., a defense group based in Alexandria, Va. "Past base closure rounds were driven by force structure cuts, as when the Army went from 18 to 10 divisions. The military is not getting smaller now.

"I would, however, expect the big fish to eat the little fish and, on balance, San Diego should gain."

Most military experts hesitated to name the little fish, but not Thompson.

He suggested that operations from the Naval Aviation Depot in Jacksonville, Fla., the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Ga., or the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow could be moved to North Island Naval Air Station.

Thompson said the transfer would make sense for repairing battered equipment being hauled back from Iraq by San Diego-based ships.

Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, whose district includes Barstow, did not comment on the potential move.

Erik Bruvold, a spokesman for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., said such a relocation would be welcome.

He said the region's business and government leaders are cautiously optimistic that San Diego County will keep its 14 major military facilities – which account for $18 billion a year in revenues, or 15 percent of the gross regional product – and maybe add a command or two.

Such optimism is based on precedent.

While California has lost 93,546 military-related jobs because of base closures since 1988, San Diego County has gained 6,099 – by far the most of any region in the state, according to an April study by the California Institute for Federal Policy Research.

However, the region's political and business leaders aren't taking chances.

In the past 20 months, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. has spent $600,000 – $500,000 of it from private donations – to lobby military officials on the merits of keeping bases in San Diego County, Bruvold said.

Defense experts differ on what, if anything, communities get for their lobbying. But all agree the best way to avoid closure or realignment is to stay off the BRAC list from the beginning, said Jeremiah Gertler, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a BRAC commission staff member during the 1995 round of closures.

A marked base's supporters can argue before the commission that their installation was not properly evaluated based on established Defense Department criteria, which lean heavily upon military need.

If a base in San Diego County is picked for closure, the region's lobbyists can tap a contingency fund to conduct studies and hire expert witnesses to make a case for reversing the decision.

Eighty-five percent of the bases listed by the Defense Department are shuttered. The commission can add or subtract bases before forwarding its recommendations to President Bush in September.

The president must accept or reject the commission's list without making changes. Then Congress will get the list and also must approve or reject it as a whole.

The word in Washington, D.C., Gertler said, is that Defense Department leaders will issue the longest closure list ever. They're well aware of Congress' strong dislike for the BRAC process, Gertler said, and believe this could be their last chance for years to downsize military installations.

During the last BRAC round a decade ago, 27 major bases were closed and 17 realigned. At the time, California lost 15,058 military and civilian jobs due to closures, while the rest of the country lost a combined 16,362, according to the California Institute study.

This time around, the Defense Department is trying to shed 23 percent excess capacity while figuring out where to base 70,000 troops returning from Europe and Asia, said the Government Accountability Office.

In recent months, Rumsfeld has tried to allay concerns by suggesting that base closures would not be as massive as initially believed. However, the worries continue.

"The level of fear and paranoia (in some military communities) is extremely intense," said Chris Hellman, a defense expert at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation in Washington, D.C. "All the communities are doing their best to save their bases."

Closure-proof sites, said Gertler, are the ones that multitask and have unique attributes, such as Miramar Marine Corps Air Base's access to air space in the Pacific Rim or Camp Pendleton's vast firing ranges and ocean access.

"What the (Defense) Department is looking for in this round is versatility. Instead of looking at bases as Army, Navy or Air Force, they are looking at what the bases can do," Gertler said. "They are explicitly ignoring the service label on each base."

He added: "You can drive a tank the same way in Colorado as you can in California, but it is the unique qualities" that will keep one base open while the other is closed.

Meanwhile, San Diego's political turmoil won't play any role in the BRAC process, Thompson and O'Hanlon agreed.

They also said they doubted that regional concerns, such as the desire for a new airport, would be a factor in deciding whether, for example, Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego or the Miramar base should be closed.

The announcement is likely to come before the May 16 deadline because of a wrinkle in the calendar.

Because May 16 is a Monday and the Defense Department must submit the list for publication in the Federal Register one workday earlier – in this case on Friday May 13 – some are calling it "Black Friday."

Whatever day the list comes out, there will be people jubilant and people deflated.

"The easy decisions have been made," Gertler said. "There are only hard decisions now. The loser in this process is any community that pretends it can't lose."


Copyright 2005, Union-Tribune Publishing Co.