Some call for about-face of military shuffle plan

Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon unveiled a sweeping plan to reorganize America's armed forces yesterday, a proposal that would close 33 major defense installations, shuffle more than 218,000 military and civilian jobs around the country and reach deep into the economies of nearly every state in the nation.

Few states fared better than Maryland, which would gain 6,624 jobs at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fort Meade and other locations without losing any of its large military facilities.

And, few places were battered worse than Washington, D.C., which would give up almost 6,500 jobs through the near-closure of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and job losses at Bolling Air Force Base and Navy offices in the district.

The realignment, which still needs presidential and congressional approval and would not be fully implemented until 2012, eliminates a net total of 26,187 military and civilian jobs around the world and saves the federal government $48.8 billion over the next two decades, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

It also takes one of the largest steps to date away from the Soviet-era military structure and closer to the lean, consolidated and fast-moving armed force that Pentagon planners envision for the coming century.

Besides trimming the military's overhead and payroll, the changes would also rearrange the armed services so that forces with the same specialty more often live and train together- sometimes even across different branches.

The Army's Armor Center and School at Fort Knox, Ky. would move to Fort Benning, Ga., to merge with the Infantry Center and School, forming a new Maneuver Center for Excellence. The Army medical training program at Fort Sam Houston in Texas would absorb similar programs from four Air Force and Navy facilities, becoming a joint training center for all the services.

The changes would also vastly alter the footprint of the nation's reserve and National Guard troops, managing them more like active military units. The Army plans to close 387 small reserve and National Guard facilities, while seven of 10 Air Force installations targeted for closure house Guard and Reserve elements.

Those units would consolidate into 125 new multi-service reserve centers that the Pentagon expects to build throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

The Navy proposes to close a submarine base in Connecticut, a shipyard in Maine and a naval station in Mississippi, among other places, with an eye toward dispersing its fleet to avoid terrorist attacks and also eliminating "excess capacity."

The Air Force, which anticipates a smaller but more lethal fleet of aircraft in the coming decades, plans to realign more than three-quarters of its installations around the country, consolidating into fewer but larger units.

The proposals met some criticism yesterday, particularly from lawmakers in the affected areas or from skeptics who questioned shrinking the military in wartime. But government watchdog groups generally applauded the plan as a genuine attempt to find efficiencies within one of government's most notoriously intractable bureaucracies.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, praised the effort as "the careful work and judgment of our nation's most knowledgeable military leaders."

"Members of Congress should resist the urge to intervene on behalf of their home districts and states," Schatz said.

Yet intervention from members of Congress - or attempted intervention - is precisely what is expected next. The plan was submitted yesterday to the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which will review it and hold hearings before passing its recommended list to President Bush in September.

The White House can then either reject the entire list or send it to Congress, which then must reject it within 45 days to prevent it from being implemented.

The Pentagon's 28-page list of proposed closings and consolidations, while built around military strategy, also read like a catalog of political winners and losers, in many cases targeting bases and job centers that lawmakers have fought for years to preserve.

States in the Northeast suffered the most, particularly Connecticut, which would lose more than 8,500 civilian and military jobs upon closure of the submarine base in New London. Maine stands to lose 6,938 jobs with the closure of the naval shipyard in Portsmouth and a naval air station in Brunswick. New Jersey gives up 3,760 jobs, mostly from shutting down Fort Monmouth.

Lawmakers from those states were among the first to lash out, including Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican, who called the plan "a travesty and strategic blunder of epic proportions." Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat, called the plan "irrational and irresponsible." The Maine and New Hampshire congressional delegations released a joint statement promising to fight the decisions, saying that "this effort did not begin today, and it will not end today."

Other states that would be adversely affected include Alaska, which gives up more than 4,600 jobs; Kentucky, which drops 3,658 jobs in realignments at Fort Knox; and Missouri, which loses 3,679 military and civilian positions.

Besides Maryland, the biggest winners include Colorado, with more than 4,000 military jobs at Fort Carson; Georgia, which gains 9,893 positions at Fort Benning; and Texas, which loses jobs throughout the state but more than offsets them by gaining 9,364 at Fort Sam Houston and 11,501 at Fort Bliss.

One big loss would be the proposed closure of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, the state's second-largest employer and a source of nearly 4,000 military and civilian jobs. Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota who defeated Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle last year, touted his ability to prevent base closings during last year's campaign. He pledged yesterday to keep fighting.

"We're going to make our case as forcefully as we can," Thune said. "The Pentagon is flat wrong."

Opposition from affected lawmakers was bipartisan yesterday, often framed as a matter of national security during a "war on terror."

"Closing bases is a short-sighted, ill-advised, and stupid thing to do," said Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat from Mississippi, where the proposed closure of Naval Station Pascagoula would mean the loss of 963 jobs. The Navy said it has room to berth ships in nearby Mayport, Fla., and has an adequate presence on the Gulf Coast with other bases in Key West and Pensacola, Fla.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "should have backed down and retracted his plans for this round," of closings, Taylor said. "But he's stubborn, and on this issue, he's just plain wrong."

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