Thune lobbied panel to save S.D. air base

Commission's changes would cut billions from Pentagon's savings figures

August 27, 2005|By John Hendren | John Hendren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ARLINGTON, Va. - The military base closing commission continued to defy the Pentagon's wishes yesterday, voting to spare South Dakota's politically charged B-1 bomber base and averting the shutdown of a major Air Force base in New Mexico.

Ellsworth Air Force Base was kept open after feverish lobbying by lawmakers from South Dakota, while New Mexico officials claimed a "partial victory" from a compromise that keeps Cannon Air Force Base open through 2009 and urges Defense officials to find new missions to keep it open thereafter.

The Pentagon recommended that both bases be closed, eliminating or shifting more than 6,600 military and civilian jobs.

The base closing commission capped three days of meetings, dealing a number of setbacks to the Pentagon's base closing and restructuring plan.

Reduced savings

The Pentagon had been seeking $48.8 billion in savings over 20 years, and the commission's changes would force the Defense Department to forgo $4.7 billion in savings.

The panel is not required to find other cuts to make up the difference.

The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission restored the Ellsworth Air Force Base after the lobbying by South Dakota lawmakers. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, unseated Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004 after arguing that he had a better chance to save the base's 4,000 jobs.

"This whole decision was about the merits," said Thune, who had become a regular presence at the meetings. "It had nothing to do with politics."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called the decision keeping Cannon open for at least four years a "partial victory."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had warned that he had avoided changing the recommendations of the military service chiefs because it would be "risky" to alter the balance of the Pentagon's plan for the placement of future bases.

Controversial cases

In each of the handful of cases that were the most controversial, the panel overturned the Pentagon at least in part.

The three largest bases that the panel left open over the Pentagon's objections would cause the Defense Department to lose $4.7 billion over 20 years - nearly 10 percent of its total savings of $48.8 billion, according to Pentagon figures.

The restoration of the Naval Submarine Base New London at Groton, Conn. and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, would cost the Navy $2.8 billion, wiping away one-third of the Navy's projected $7 billion in savings over 20 years under the Pentagon's tally.

Restoring Ellsworth would cost the Air Force an estimated $1.85 billion in savings.

High-profile changes

"The more high-profile a recommendation by the Pentagon, the more likely they have been to change it," said Jeremiah Gertler, a staff member for the commission during the previous base closure round and now a military analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Past base closure commissions have overturned the Defense Department's recommendations about 15 percent of the time.

"So far, this commission is going along 66 percent of the time," said Gertler, at midday. "But those 33, 34 percent where they voted against the department were the big bases."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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