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Closures won't save as much as Pentagon expects, panel says

WASHINGTON—Savings from closing or shifting the functions of many domestic military bases are likely to be far below Pentagon estimates, the head of the panel that hammered out the shifts said Saturday.

While the Pentagon had predicted a $50 billion windfall over 20 years, Anthony J. Principi, chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, said the Pentagon would be lucky to save $37 billion.

The savings could drop as low as $14 billion if questionable personnel savings aren't counted, Principi said. The commission, which wound up its work on Saturday, had challenged the Pentagon's savings estimates repeatedly.

The commission's final session followed three days of often intense deliberations in which the panel accepted Pentagon proposals to close five major Army bases, two large Navy installations on the Gulf Coast and the Army's historic Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The commission also consolidated or shut down hundreds of smaller National Guard and Reserve Centers across the country.

The commission reversed the Pentagon on several tough issues, however, by refusing to close a Navy shipyard in Maine and a submarine base in Connecticut. It also kept open the Red River Army Depot in Texas, and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

The commission also voted to keep open Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico but went along with the Pentagon's recommendation to remove F-16 fighter jets from it. The panel stipulated that the base will close by 2010 unless the secretary of defense gives it a new mission.

The panel also voted to keep KC-135 air refueling tankers at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota until at least 2011, reversing an earlier plan to move the tankers out and use the base for future unmanned aerial vehicles that have yet to be built.

Principi said the commission "did not flinch from tough decisions" to close bases when it agreed with the Pentagon's recommendations, but "neither did we flinch" from keeping open other installations the Pentagon sought to close.

The panel's recommendations must be on President Bush's desk by Sept 8. He's got 15 days to accept or reject the list, although he can send it back once for revisions. Once Bush accepts the list, Congress has 45 days to accept it or reject it, but it can't make any changes.

Lawmakers endorsed four prior military realignment plans and are expected to approve this one.

"We worked really hard to find the right answers," said Commissioner Harold Gehman, a retired Navy admiral, as the last session ended.

Some defense analysts lauded the panel's work.

"From the tenor of the questions, and even some of the direct statements made by members of the commission, they're not feeling shy about taking on the Pentagon if they feel it's appropriate to do so," said Chis Hellman, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The center is a Washington nonprofit that seeks to reduce military spending, especially on nuclear weapons.

The panel's last challenge, on which members worked until nearly 10 p.m. Friday, was a redistribution of hundreds of Air Force fighter jets, refueling tankers and cargo planes among several dozen Air Reserve and Air National Guard bases around the country.

The Pentagon's original plan faced widespread opposition in the Reserve and Guard and among the nation's governors because it would have left many states without aircraft or flying missions.

Gehman said the panel tried to leave at least one Air National Guard flying mission in every state, though some states were left without aircraft or flying units as the final list was drawn up.

Gehman and other commissioners said their version would better address homeland security concerns than the Pentagon's original recommendations.

A federal judge had ruled earlier Friday that the panel had no authority to deactivate the 111th Fighter Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard without the approval of that state's governor. The commission voted Friday to leave the unit intact at its base, the Willow Grove Naval Air Station. It did, however, move its A-10 ground attack jets to bases elsewhere.

Commissioner James Bilbray, a former Nevada congressman, said the judge's ruling would have no bearing on the panel's action since the A-10s are federal property.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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