Base closings panel, localities gird for fight Recommendations must be in July 1

June 23, 1993|By Richard H.P. Sia | Richard H.P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Dozens of communities across the country will wake up later this week to a harsh reality: the Cold War really is over, and their ride on the Defense Department's multibillion-dollar gravy train has ground to a screeching halt.

For the third time in five years, a federal commission will take the exceedingly unpopular step of declaring which military bases, shipyards and depots should be closed or consolidated, effectively telling the most military-dependent cities and towns to find a new reason for existence or die.

"Some might question our sanity in taking this on," quipped Robert D. Stuart Jr., an Illinois businessman who is serving a second term on the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

The panel begins marathon deliberations and a series of final votes today through Sunday before a July 1 deadline for recommending which military bases President Clinton and Congress should close in the next several years. By law, both the president and Congress can accept the entire list or reject it; changes or substitutions are not allowed.

All spring, communities have tried to defy downward trends in defense spending and military forces by lobbying to maintain the status quo, if not turn back the clock.

Desperate pleas

At glistening new home ports in Everett, Wash., Ingleside, Texas, and Staten Island, N.Y., where construction began when the country wanted a 600-ship Navy during the Reagan era, there have been desperate pleas to keep these costly facilities around for a fleet that will shrink from 413 ships next year to roughly 320 by the end of the decade.

The defenders of the 238 military installations now at risk have clamored for attention, betting the future of their local economic base on much more than a polite argument about how their favored facility serves national security interests. A few resorted to publicity stunts, some launched relentless attacks on competing bases and still others bit down hard on the hand that feeds them by turning on the military itself.

Net gain for Maryland

Defense Secretary Les Aspin proposed closing 31 major facilities and realigning 134 others as part of the Clinton administration's effort to pare the post-Cold War military. In Maryland, the Naval Electronic Systems Engineering Activity in the St. Mary's County town of St. Inigoes and the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Annapolis would be closed, but other nationwide consolidations would mean a net increase in the state of 2,731 jobs.

The base closing commission twice expanded Mr. Aspin's list after chambers of commerce and politicians kept urging the panel to gore someone else's ox. This only intensified the lobbying of the commission by inciting other communities to mount retaliatory strikes to persuade the panel to stick with the original hit list.

"Communities obviously have come up with competing scenarios," James A. Courter, the commission chairman, said last month.

He explained that the panel expanded the list so that it could compare the Pentagon list with all other alternatives, including public shipyards, Navy boot camps, Air Force tactical air bases and logistics depots. But if the 1991 round is any guide, the commission is likely to opt for virtually all the Pentagon's original choices, making few substitutions.

Worse to come

And defense analysts warn that the worst is yet to come.

Mr. Courter said this year's decisions will leave a network of U.S. bases large enough to accommodate the level of military forces in the now-obsolete Bush administration defense budget.

To adjust to current plans for even fewer forces, the Navy, which offered the most candidates for closing this year, must make at least the same sacrifice in the 1995 round, said Ronald O'Rourke, a naval analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

"It's usually a battle of 'us vs. them,' but in the long run it may not

make any difference; if you get off the list this year, you'll be on the list the next time," he said.

"The question they have to ask is if it's better to be early in line for government aid money, do you want to attract business development now or later, when most major companies may have already decided on relocating? Communities and their representatives really have to be honest with themselves."

Resistance tactics

But this bleak prospect has not deterred communities and their leaders from resisting the cuts with tactics like these:

* Put on a show. An Oklahoma City printer tried to line up 14,000 fellow residents to form a 12.5-mile human chain around Tinker Air Force Base -- Oklahoma's largest single employer -- to coincide with a field visit by Mr. Courter this month. But not enough people showed up to surround the base.

Hundreds of Texans organized a parade in Corpus Christi to escort the commission to a field hearing on three area naval facilities June 6. But panel members did not want to get caught in the spectacle, so they took an alternate route to the hearing site.

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