In wake of base closings, Pentagon can redesign forces and possible uses Navy likely to have four 'megaports'

July 11, 1993|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Now that the 1993 military base closing exercise is over, the Pentagon can get on with reshaping the armed forces for the late 1990s and fitting them on a shrinking but still ample list of facilities.

Forces are being reorganized and basing is being changed as new strategy evolves for an uncertain period of regional conflicts, terrorism, ethnic violence and peacekeeping operations.

In the new scheme, with base closures coming from California to South Carolina, some big installations will inevitably grow bigger as ships, aircraft and personnel are shifted about.

The Navy especially will have larger concentrations at fewer bases as it happily gives up excess capacity on all three coasts -- capacity once intended for a proposed 600-ship fleet that failed to materialize even before the Cold War ended. The likely prospect now seems to be an end-of-the-century fleet of 300 to 340 ships.

Consequently, the admirals say, there will be greater concentrations of ships and aircraft in four areas in the continental United States: Norfolk, Va.; San Diego; Mayport-Jacksonville, Fla.; and the Pacific Northwest (Bremerton, Bangor, Everett and Whidbey Island, Wash.).

This outlook has given rise to the idea that the Navy will have a few "megaports" -- notably at Norfolk and San Diego -- instead of the previously planned numbers of homeports all around the U.S. coasts, which were designed to be well dispersed against a Soviet naval or missile attack.

The admirals say the "megaport" description originated in the press. In any case, Norfolk and San Diego have traditionally been huge; one is Atlantic Fleet Headquarters and the other is the Pacific Fleet's main West Coast base.

"There was no strategy that started out by saying we're going to have a megaport" on either coast, said Vice Adm. Stephen F. Loftus, deputy chief of naval operations for logistics.

xTC But after the base closures, there clearly would be "major fleet concentrations" in Norfolk, Mayport, San Diego, the widespread Pacific Northwest complex and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, headquarters of the Pacific Fleet, he said.

President Clinton quickly approved last weekend the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission's proposals to shut 35 major and 95 lesser domestic bases and realign 45 others. Congress is not expected to object in a year of frenetic searching for spending cuts.

While there was anguish in many communities facing base closings, the reduction of the defense budget and the military forces has far outpaced the shutting of installations.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin has told Congress, for example, that the defense budget will be cut 42 percent in the 1995-1997 period and that the forces will be reduced 30 percent. But in the same period, domestic military bases will be cut just 15 percent.

More extensive closings can thus be expected in the next round of base studies in 1995.

The services are trying to adjust their base structures to fiscal realities -- ridding themselves of the great excess capacity developed over many years -- and to new strategic needs.

These needs include more basing of combat units at home as forces are drawn down overseas, focus on regional conflict instead of large-scale land war in Central Europe, readiness for swift movement to hot spots to prevent conflict or end it fast, emphasis on naval engagements in coastal areas instead of the high seas, and development of high-tech air weapons well beyond what was seen in the gulf war.

In the 1993 base studies round, the Army gave up no installations that figured in its reshaping of forces for projecting power abroad in the 1990s.

The Army's long-term basing plans call for locating the right kinds of forces -- tank, infantry, airborne -- at the right places for rapid deployment in a crisis.

For a key example, officers point to the switch in plans for the 24th Mechanized Infantry and the 1st Cavalry divisions since the Cold War ended.

In the Cold War, the 24th was to be the last division to deploy from the United States. The 1st Cavalry was to fly to Germany in a crisis and pick up combat equipment stored there.

Today's plans call for those two outfits to be able to arrive by sealift, in the Persian Gulf area or anywhere else, within 30 days. The 24th is based at Fort Stewart, Ga., near the port of Savannah, and the 1st Cavalry is at Fort Hood, Texas, ready to move out through Beaumont and Houston.

Under the new base closure plan, the Air Force will be developing a sort of "megabase" where it did not intend or want to -- at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.

Pentagon plans for improving air mobility -- to get forces to regional crisis points faster -- called for building up Plattsburgh Air Force Base, N.Y. It would be the major air mobility base in the Northeast United States "to support the new Major Regional Contingency strategy," the base closing commission report said.

But the commission said no.

Instead of moving a large concentration of air transports and tankers to Plattsburgh, the Air Force was told to shut it down and build up McGuire. The commission said McGuire could handle the mission at less cost.

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