WASHINGTON -- Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staaff, said yesterday that the United States was wasting money on unnecessary military bases and that the government must be "vicious" in closing installations.
In an appearance before the commission charged with closing bases, General Powell said that consolidation was needed to make the best use of shrinking resources in post-Cold War society.
General Powell said that the closings would complement changes in U.S. military strategy as the Soviet threat recedes, meshing with force and budget reductions intended to produce a leaner, more mobile military that could respond quickly to unexpected crises.
Every dollar wasted keeping unneeded installations open, General Powell said, weakens the military.
"We must be vicious with this process," he said. "We have got to close bases." He said that much of the U.S. military establishment was now burdened by obsolete bases.
General Powell gave his blunt defense of the Pentagon plan to close 43 bases by 1997 at a public hearing of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. The commission, appointed by President Bush, is reviewing the Pentagon's plan and is to make recommendations to Mr. Bush by July 1.
The commission may alter the Pentagon's plan, but whatever it decides, the president and Congress must accept or reject the result in its entirety. So it is at this stage of the process that lobbying for and against the plan is being waged.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has also recommended consolidating 28 bases as part of the plan, which he has said would match an expected 25 percent reduction in military personnel by 1997.
"The reality of the future is that the old security context that we knew and counted on and planned on for 40 years is gone," General Powell said. "Whether the Soviet Union turns out to be a nightmare that we don't really want to think about is not really the issue.
"The simple fact of the matter is that a 25 percent cut means a 25 percent cut," General Powell said. "The entire department must be taken down. But it has to be taken down in a sensible way, so that when we are at our new base force level, as we call it, it is a good force, a quality force that can get up, go and perform a mission for the people of the United States.
"We don't have a rational base structure now," General Powell said."We have Army bases that to some extent are residual of the Indian wars of the last century. We have Air Force bases which are to some extent residual of the early days of the Cold War."
By 1995, he said, the Pentagon will have cut forces by 25 percent, with 18 Army divisions instead of 28 and 36 Air Force tactical fighter wings instead of 26. A more efficient use of space and technology, he said, will be needed to conform with this overall shrinkage.
General Powell's remarks, delivered in a Capitol Hill hearing room, also sent a stern message to members of Congress who spurned Mr. Cheney's last base-closing plan and have already promised to campaign against this one.
The Pentagon's recommendations on closing bases have met with protest from members of Congress and a host of local officials in the 20 states where closings are proposed.
But the eight members of the base-closing panel, most of them former high-ranking military officers, have appeared far more receptive to the initial lobbying efforts from Mr. Cheney, General Powell and nearly a dozen other senior Pentagon officials.
Many of the planned reductions and realignments, General Powell said, are aimed at locating ground units closer to air or sea ports so that they could be speedily deployed.
He cited as one example the Pentagon's recommendation to move the 7th Light Infantry Division based at Ford Ord, Calif., which is being closed, to Fort Lewis in Washington, near an Air Force base.
Part of that planning, General Powell said, assumes that the United States will "keep an enhanced naval presence" in the Persian Gulf and regularly exercise ground and air forces there ,, to maintain stability.
The commission will hold a series of public hearings in Washington and eight metropolitan locations near the affected installations. Individual commission members have also scheduled visits to each of the bases included on Mr. Cheney's list.
James A. Courter, a former New Jersey congressman who is chairman of the commission, said yesterday that the panel had already discussed adding or deleting recommendations from the Pentagon list.
"It's an important issue we have to address and lay to rest very early," Mr. Courter said at a news conference before the hearing yesterday.
"We must very vigorously make sure we scrutinize their work," Mr. Courter said. "We do not accept at face value their process or at face value the accuracy of their data."
The General Accounting Office is working with staff members of the commission to review the Pentagon recommendations.
Mr. Courter said that if the panel decided there were "compelling" reasons to remove bases from the Pentagon list, it would have to add other installations to remain in keeping with the overall force structure plan.