Alaska's congressional delegation opposes closing of U.S. bases

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Members of the Alaska delegation and others in Congress are vowing to resist a recommendation from the Pentagon to close military bases around the country.

Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said it doesn't make sense to start a round of domestic base closures at this point. He said he has been calling for the Department of Defense to close bases overseas, some of which "are designed from a World War II model."

The administration can close overseas bases on its own, but congressional approval is required to start the process of shutting U.S. bases. And that's going to be a fight.

"It's going to be a tough nut for the Senate to pass any legislation that gives the authority to the Defense Department to move forward on doing a base closure process, especially in an election year," said Begich, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Plus, they haven't proved up the European and global alignment they need to do."

There are no specifics on what U.S. military bases might be targeted but the Alaska delegation said it's preparing to advocate for the state's installations. Begich, along with Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, pointed to the president's recent announcement that the military's focus was going to be on Asia and the Pacific Rim. They said Alaska's bases are perfect for that and shouldn't be closed or shrunk.

"Our state's role in ensuring U.S. military dominance in the Pacific theater is significant. If the Defense Department is true to its strategy, contribution to the military mission should grow in the coming years," Murkowski said.

Alaska Rep. Don Young and Gov. Sean Parnell said they'll also emphasize Alaska's strategic position and try to forestall cuts in the state.

Alaskans aren't the only members of Congress who are objecting to the idea of domestic base closures. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the base closure proposal was "dangerous." Many lawmakers said they won't support closing any U.S. bases unless the military looks first at Europe, where the Army plans to draw down two combat brigades by 2015. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said this week that he wouldn't support closing domestic bases before U.S. bases in Europe were shuttered.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said many installations overseas are "relics of the Cold War." The Pentagon has been under pressure from Congress to cut its budget. And its proposal to close or shrink bases appeared to be not a money-saving effort as much as a political move to shift some of the more difficult budget choices onto Congress, lawmakers and defense analysts suggested.

Begich said he's heard that talk and plans to ask Pentagon officials if the request was an attempt to gain leverage over Congress to forestall the automatic defense spending cuts that would be triggered starting next year under a new federal budget law. He said he hopes that's not the case.

"All that's going to do is get a lot of the members very upset at them, this kind of political gamesmanship," Begich said. "I hope that's not the strategy."

The Pentagon on Thursday announced the potential base closures as part of what it said was its most ambitious cost-saving effort in a decade. "We have no choice" because of cost-cutting demands from Congress, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told PBS's NewsHour.

But the process called BRAC, for Base Realignment and Closure, has proven in the past to have problems as a cost-savings measure. The last round of closures, in 2005, cost billions in closing facilities and transferring people and weapons. Researchers at the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2009 that the Pentagon won't break even on it until 2018.

If Congress went ahead and authorized the process again, the Pentagon would issue a list of recommended closures to an independent commission appointed by the president. That commission would present a final list to the president and Congress for approval. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that process should begin "as soon as possible."

Pentagon officials described BRAC as the responsible thing to do given their plans to shrink the size of the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. But officials didn't include possible savings from BRAC in its budget proposal, which they said would save $487 billion over 10 years.

What the Pentagon called cuts actually are reductions in future spending growth. Its base budget request calls for an increase of $36 billion over the next five years, or an average 2 percent growth every year.

To be sure, the Pentagon believes there will be some base closures and shrinking installations. Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said Friday that the Air Force could eliminate some bases because it has shrunk its fleet by hundreds of aircraft since 2005 and plans to cut 10,000 personnel in the next five years.

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said that given the scheduled reduction in the size of the Army from 562,000 troops to 490,000 by 2017, some of its bases may get smaller. Both officials declined to offer specific bases that could be targeted.

Follow Sean Cockerham on twitter @seancockerham. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this story.

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