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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette May 22, 2005

My Point: David M. Shribman / Base emotions -- and hard realities

The battle over military-base reductions will be bitter, but there's no denying the need for consolidation

By David M. Shribman

Here's a handy rule you can live by: The government reacts to change far more often than it causes change. So when you apply that guideline to this month's base-closing controversy, you can pretty much be sure that the changes the government is causing -- closing nearly three dozen bases and realigning both regional economies and home economies as a result -- reflect changes that have been long under way in the wider world.

This is no consolation to the thousands the domestic military realignment will put out of work, nor to the communities who now must pick up the pieces. But military forces are designed to respond to changes in the world, and one generation's national-security concerns cannot be allowed to warp the next generation's security preparations.

Nowhere does this cruel reality hit harder than two places that, for decades, have stood as symbols of America's defense profile: Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., and the United States Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn.

The losses in these two places are almost beyond calculation: more than 3,800 jobs in South Dakota (where Ellsworth is the second-largest employer) and more than 8,400 jobs in Connecticut (which will lose more military jobs than any other state). But the raw numbers tell only part of the story. We know here in the Pittsburgh area, which might lose the 911th Military Airlift Wing, the Charles E. Kelly Support Facility and the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron, that each military family accounts for thousands of dollars of spending beyond the base. And the bases themselves have been the spine of these communities' identities for decades.

But the air base and the sub base in two very different parts of the United States stand, together, as symbols of a very different military profile the United States is taking in the years after the fall of Soviet communism and the beginning of the 21st-century age of terror.

These bases go back into history, Groton as far back as the Ulysses S. Grant administration (it became a sub base a year before the nation entered World War I), Ellsworth as far back as the first month of World War II (it became a missile base as the Cold War deepened). The first nuclear submarine was built at Groton, an important arm of the American nuclear force in the Cold War was based at Ellsworth.

Indeed, it was in the Cold War that both these bases came of age and came to the forefront. Air and sub power were at the heart of the American military effort during that long twilight struggle, years in which the phrase forward projection had a meaning that was at once comforting and menacing. Ellsworth and Groton were the places where that forward projection -- of long-range bombers, of wide-ranging quiet subs -- were based. America slept better because of the aviators and sailors whose families slept in South Dakota and Connecticut.

But this is a different time, with different challenges, requiring different responses. There still are threats to American security, but not ones that likely require as big a submarine fleet or intercontinental ballistic missiles (which haven't been part of the Ellsworth arsenal for more than a decade). There still is a role for long-range bombers and submarines, but not for as many.

"Generally we don't need the same military we needed 20 years ago," says Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel now teaching at Boston University and director of the university's Center for International Relations. "We can maintain supremacy with a radically different kind of force. We still need long-range bombers, but we can do more with less. We still have a role for subs, but mostly as land-attack platforms."

In the Cold War, the notion was that the last bomber from places like Ellsworth would be in the air before the first Soviet warhead detonated. That notion from the strategy of mutual-assured destruction crumbled with the Berlin Wall.

"A lot of the bombers were in places like South Dakota, because it was closer to the Soviet Union," says John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense-policy group. "That was then. This is now, when we're not worried about ICBMs taking out our B-1s. The rationale for having lots of bomber bases has gone away."

In the Cold War, the submarine fleet was designed to trail Soviet subs behaving mysteriously in places they shouldn't be. Today almost the entire Russian fleet is tied up and rusting, and despite the worries about the emerging Chinese navy, there is no sub fleet besides the American with any meaningful military capacity in the seas today.

Today submarines are well-suited to search for mines, to land SEAL teams into hostile territory, to undertake surveillance activities and to fire Cruise missiles. But the size of the sub fleet is substantially smaller than it was only two decades ago. And the operations of submarine bases can be consolidated with the operations of other naval installations.

Community and political leaders in both South Dakota and Connecticut are mobilizing for battles of their own: the effort to reverse the decision of the base realignment and closure commission whose decisions prompt painful change only because they reflect geopolitical and strategic changes long in train. Sometimes these efforts win modest success, but no one in Rapid City or Groton can reverse how the world has changed -- even though both bases themselves have changed with the threat over the years, even though the Ellsworth bombers were involved in the battering of Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, even though Groton evaded a less draconian cutback a dozen years ago.

Amid the grief and the worry it is hard to remember what bases are for. They're for protecting American security, not for protecting American jobs. That's a tough reckoning, and a tough verdict, but military men and women pride themselves on their toughness. They've shown it many times before, at Ellsworth, Groton, the Pittsburgh area and at so many other places, where this month it is almost impossible, and very bitter, to remember that in the real mission of the military they have succeeded beyond measure.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette


Copyright 2005, PG Publishing Co., Inc.