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Panel votes to close bases in Gulf, spare 2 in New England

ARLINGTON, Va.—The Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted Wednesday to shut down the Navy's base at Pascagoula, Miss., and its Naval Station Ingleside, near Corpus Christi, Texas, a decision that would remove a major military presence from the Gulf of Mexico.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that shutting those bases would leave the gulf unprotected. "I think that closing the only deepwater port in the Gulf of Mexico is a mistake," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, referring to Ingleside.

The nine-member panel blazed through its final votes on major Army and Navy bases that the Pentagon wants to close or downsize. It will continue to vote on the fates of smaller facilities and Air Force bases on Thursday and Friday.

The commission also voted to shut down the Army's Fort Gillem and Fort McPherson in Georgia, Fort Monroe in Virginia, Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, and the Navy's air station in Brunswick, Maine.

The commission rejected some key Pentagon suggestions and voted to keep open two major Navy bases in New England—Submarine Base New London in Connecticut and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine—and the Red River Army Depot in Texas, where Humvees and Bradleys used in the war in Iraq are repaired.

But the panel went along with many of the Pentagon's plans, including closing or downsizing hundreds of National Guard and Reserve centers.

The Pentagon wants to close or realign 62 major bases and shut down or consolidate activities at more than 800 other facilities. It says the moves would save $49 billion over 20 years and help shift the military from a Cold War posture to a more streamlined force better suited for war against terrorists. Some critics and members of Congress have challenged that estimate.

The commission must send its final list to President Bush by Sept 8. He then will approve the list in its entirety or send it back for revision. Once the president approves the list, Congress has 45 days to accept or reject the entire list, but it can't make any changes.

Still, there are "certainly opportunities to challenge the decision at the Department (of the Army) level, the congressional level and the court level," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.

The Pentagon contended that because it's been downsizing the Navy sub fleet since the end of the Cold War, the New London base was no longer needed. Closing the base would save more than $1.5 billion over 20 years, Pentagon officials said. Eight thousand jobs would have been lost.

But the panel voted 7 to 2 to keep it open. The chairman of the commission, Anthony J. Principi, said emerging threats in Asia and uncertainty over how many submarines the Navy will retain made it important to keep the base open.

"If we close New London down, we'll never get it back," Principi said.

The Pentagon said the Portsmouth shipyard had 27 percent excess capacity in its repair facilities and that closing it would have saved $1.2 billion over 20 years.

Commissioner Phillip Coyle, a former Pentagon official, said that if the Navy closed Portsmouth, it would have only an 8 percent excess capacity in its shipyards, a margin that might be too slim in the event of a future crisis.

"I don't use my garage every day, but I'm not going to tear it down," Coyle said.

The commission had voted on July 19 to close Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine. The Pentagon had wanted only to downsize it. Its planes and personnel will be sent to Mayport, Fla.

The commission last month also planned to shut down Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, but it voted Wednesday to keep it open as long as local and state officials stop commercial housing growth around the base to ensure that training missions would be safe.

Closing the base would have meant shipping Navy jets to Cecil Field in Florida.

The closure of Fort Monmouth means that the Army will have to ship all its electronic warfare programs to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The Pentagon estimated that the move would save more than $1 billion over 20 years.

There have been four major rounds of base closures between 1988 and 1995. Commissions in those rounds have approved an average of 85 percent of the Pentagon's recommendations. Analysts expect the approval rate this time will be about the same.

"Even if the commission differs from (the Defense Department), it's not going to be wholesale," said Chris Hellman, a defense analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, a Washington policy research group. "They're not going to strike 50 percent of the list or do anything that draconian. In many ways, they've liked what DOD has proposed, and the administration, for political reasons, won't overturn that."

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GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050825 BASECLOSINGS

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