Pentagon seeks to ease concerns of BRAC panel

By Liz Sidoti: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials said Saturday in their final appearance before the commission reviewing their plan to close or scale back military bases that the changes do not overestimate savings and would strengthen national security.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s representatives sought to ease concerns of the nine-member panel just days before it votes on whether to accept or reject parts of a proposal that would affect hundreds of bases.

At least some commissioners still were skeptical.

“I still don’t buy their argument about savings,” Anthony Principi, the commission’s chairman, told The Associated Press.

Michael Wynne, the Pentagon’s technology and weapons-buying chief who oversaw the development of the proposal, said the savings projection was “adequately defended.”

The commission must send the proposal to President Bush in September and then to Congress later this fall.

Previous commissions — in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 — changed about 15 percent of what the Pentagon proposed. Analysts expect that to happen again this time.

During the rare weekend hearing, Principi told Pentagon officials that significant questions about the plan remain.

Those include whether the plan actually will save $48.8 billion over 20 years as the Pentagon estimates; whether New England will be left unprotected by the closure of major bases in the region; and whether the Air Force’s proposal to restructure the Air National Guard will hurt national security.

“It may sound like we’re against the whole thing,” said James Hill, a commissioner and a retired Army general. While much of Rumsfeld’s proposal is “really well made,” Hill said, “we’re not going to bless it all, I suspect.”

Rumsfeld has proposed shutting down or at least reducing forces at 62 of the largest bases and hundreds of smaller military facilities.

In questioning the Pentagon’s estimate on savings, the commission has pointed to its own analysis as well as a report by the Government Accountability Office that found upfront costs will total $24 billion.

That report said eliminating jobs held by military personnel would make up about half of the Pentagon’s projected annual recurring savings. It also said much of that money would not be available for other uses because the jobs — and salaries — simply would be relocated.

“It doesn’t appear to us the savings are real,” Phillip Coyle, a commissioner and former assistant secretary of defense, told officials.

The Pentagon stood by its estimates and Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey said personnel cuts in the “institutional Army” in the years ahead will produce “absolute dollars saved.”

Additionally, Wynne said recommendations in the proposal “not only make economic sense but also, and primarily, military and operational sense.”

But commissioners fear the proposal could leave the Northeast unprotected. On the Pentagon’s chopping block are two major New England bases — the submarine base at Groton, Conn., and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Forces at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine, would be reduced drastically.

“We can provide, and believe we are providing, adequately for the area of New England as far as coverage is concerned,” Wynne assured commissioners.

Adm. Robert Willard, vice chief of naval operations, said keeping Brunswick open means units can be deployed from there if needed.

Commissioners also are concerned about the impact of restructuring the Air National Guard on homeland security. Governors and their adjutants general, who oversee Guard forces, oppose the plan.

“We don’t consider disagreements with a few adjutant generals out there in the states as a rift between the Air Force and the National Guard,” Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force’s chief of staff, told the commission.

But James Bilbray, a commissioner and former Nevada congressman, said, “I’ve never seen so many governors united — whether Democrat or Republican — and angry about one particular item in my whole political career.”

Also Saturday, the commission heard testimony from Virginia and Florida officials, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on whether to relocate the Master Jet Base at the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia to Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla., which was closed in 1999.

The Pentagon opposes the move, but the commission is considering reopening Cecil Field and relocating the jets there because of what the commission contends are encroachment issues in Virginia.