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The Military's Big Shutdown

By the unhallowed and patently irrational traditions of American pork-barrel politics, the merest mention of shutting down stateside military bases is supposed to touch off a firestorm of indignation on Capitol Hill-and sure enough, last week it did. "The mother of all base-closure lists clobbers Charleston," bellowed Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, protesting the proposed elimination of the Charleston navy base and shipyard from the Pentagon's active-duty list. And so it went, this hoary ritual, on the day that Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced the latest losers in the long and painful game of downsizing the U.S. defense budget. There were plenty of victims: 31 major bases in 15 states selected for outright closure, plus 134 other installations scheduled for reorganization or cutbacks. Thousands of civilian jobs lost, scores of communities affected-all of which, by the standards of the porky past, should now provoke the House and Senate to wage open warfare against Bill Clinton.

But they probably won't. Despite last week's fulminations from Hollings and others, Congress five years ago passed a law that allows the Pentagon to shut down, consolidate and reorganize hundreds of unneeded military bases so long as the services can make their case to an independent base-closing commission. The commission will review Aspin's proposal and make recommendations after public hearings. Then the president and Congress must acceptor reject-the entire list; by law, they cannot intervene to save just one or two politically protected bases. This all-or-none tactic is designed to block the congressional logrolling that has long frustrated rational decision making in defense matters, particularly base closings. It has already worked twice, in 1988 and 1991, and it will probably work this time as well. As a result, something very much like last week's list will take effect later this year and, over time, shut down such celebrated bastions of freedom and democracy as the Defense Logistics Agency's data-processing center in Battle Creek, Mich.

As big as it was, last week's list is just one more round in a consolidation process that will continue through the 1990s and should, if all goes well, create a military establishment that is significantly leaner but still mean enough to get the global job done. There are, of course, no guarantees. But even the most obdurate defenders of parochial economic interests on Capitol Hill are broadly aware of the need to cut the defense budget without destroying the combat effectiveness of the army, air force, navy and Marines. They are also aware, or should be, that pork-barrel politics was a very large contributing cause of the disastrous state of U.S. military preparedness after the Vietnam War.

That was a time when Congress chose to protect the pork at the expense of what the Pentagon calls O&M (operations and maintenance) budgets for the military services. O&M pays for such essentials as field training, aircraft flying hours and ship steaming time; it is the lifeblood of combat readiness. After it was cut, savagely, during the 1970s, army tank crews scored miserably in live-fire exercises, navy ships were so short of ammunition that they were forced to share, and morale and re-enlistments plummeted. This led to what is known as the "hollow army" syndrome-and later, to the hugely expensive military buildup championed by Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger. As the Reagan buildup proved, the issue has always been pay now or pay later; there are no shortcuts to an effective national defense. And while they may differ on the details, Aspin and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are now determined to avoid the hollow-army syndrome even as they cut military spending overall. After all, given the currently unsettled state of world politics, Bill Clinton or his successor may well need a combat-ready military on very short notice.

The exact relationship between base closings and the future health of the armed services is hard to define, but the financial link is clear enough. The Defense Department owns some 3,800 properties of all sorts nationwide, of which 481 are counted as major installations. This vast empire includes sprawling military reservations like Fort Hood, Texas, and charming relics like Carlisle Barracks, Pa., which dates from 1757. The total cost of running and maintaining this empire comes to just over $20 billion a year. As it happens, the cost of training and operating the troops and ships and planes and vehicles of the U.S. military also comes to just over $20 billion a year. So that's the trade-off. If Aspin's list is approved, and if its savings are added to those already achieved by the base-closing lists of 1988 and 1991, the total savings would be about $6.5 billion a year-or the equivalent of a third of the military's operating budget.

The budgetary stakes are accordingly high and likely to go much higher-for as Aspin and everyone else at the Pentagon know, there will be more base-closing battles ahead. Actually, the first two rounds of this multiyear process were examples of taking the easy way out: the losers were mostly smaller (and less politically sacrosanct) depots and facilities. Aspin has now beg-un to target major bases such as the giant U.S. Navy complex in Charleston, S.C., and eight major navy and Marine installations in recession-plagued California.

The navy seems to be the big loser in last week's list. But that is only because the current chief of naval operations, Adm. Frank Kelso, is aggressively pushing his service toward a new definition of its role. One part of that challenge was created by the end of the cold war and the effective demise of the Soviet submarine fleet. That means the navy can scale back its fleet and the bases to berth them. The other problem is that the navy urgently needs to find cash to modernize its carrier aircraft, which lack the kind of precision-strike capabilities that played a pivotal role in the Persian Gulf In a period of draconian cuts in military spending, Kelso's decision to shed unneeded real estate is an obvious response to both problems.

The army and the air force will get their turn-probably in 1995, when the base-closing debate will resume, or perhaps in 1997. The forward planning for these new reductions has hardly begun, but the next closure lists will flow from the conclusions of the full-scale review of U.S. military needs in the post-cold-war era Aspin is launching this summer. To judge by the Pentagon's own budget computations, these future base-closing battles will have to be much larger than any of the first three. Taken together, the 1988 and 1991 base-closing lists equaled only 9 percent of what the Pentagon calls the "plant-replacement value" of the total base network in the United States. Aspin's new list would add about 6 percent more, for a total of 15 percent. But the overall goal for cutting the defense budget by 1997 is no less than 40 percent from its peak in 1985-which means the gory process of cutting back on obsolete or redundant military bases is no more than halfway completed.

Virtually unnoticed in the uproar over domestic base closings was the fact that the Defense Department is also pulling back from its bases overseas. In fact, the closure of U.S. bases and installations abroad is considerably further advanced than the shutdowns here at home. Within the United States, the Pentagon is launching its third round of closures and reductions. But the overseas network has already been cut nine times and has shed 28 percent of its "plant-replacement value." Aspin says he now plans to shut down 24 installations in five countries and cut back operations in another five. He also says he intends to cut America's overseas base network 35 or 40 percent by around 1996.

So the pullback of the U.S. military from foreign bases is going to accelerate. Currently there are more than 350,000 U.S. troops stationed on land or sea abroad. Aspin hopes to cut this number to 200,000, but there is a strong possibility that budget pressures will force even larger drawdowns. In the-election campaign, Clinton talked of reducing U.S. forces in Europe from their current 260,000 to 100,000. But U.S. force planners are already sketching scenarios that bring the number of American troops in Europe below 50,000.

The political uproar over domestic base closings, in other words, diverts attention from a historic change in U.S. military strategy. In essence, the Pentagon is trying to make two different transitions, both of which have large implications for future base structure. The first is a shift away from its cold-war posture of stationing a garrison force in bases in Europe and around the world. Instead, the brass is trying to create an expeditionary force that will be based almost wholly within the United States but poised to move out to foreign trouble spots on short notice. The implication is a new emphasis on the stateside bases located near the coasts. That would allow army units to move their heavy equipment to U.S. seaports more quickly and reduce response time overseas. The air force, similarly, has sited many of its bomber bases well inland to protect them from sneak attack by Soviet submarine-launched missiles. But the emphasis now is on "global reach," which means positioning air force bomber wings near the coasts to reduce their flying time.

The second change in U.S. strategy is even larger-the abandonment of the notion that future wars could require the mass mobilization of the civilian population and the mass mobilization of the U.S. industrial base. This assumption dates from World War II, and it has long been part of American strategic thinking. But it is outdated today. High-tech weapons have drastically reduced the likelihood of long, slow wars, while the ever-longer lead times needed to produce such weapons have also undermined the "mass mobilization" doctrine. The next war, as they say in the Pentagon, will be come-as-you-are-and Desert Storm was no exception, notwithstanding the fact that it took more than six months of hectic preparation.

From the Pentagon's point of view, the pork-barrel politics of the base-closing debate is as obsolete as a flintlock musket-and the fact that some in Congress are up in arms about it now, during a period of enormous dislocation for all the uniformed services, is a troubling throwback to the micromeddling past. Give us the chance to shape the military future rationally, they say-or if not, get ready to replay the strategic mistakes of the past.

The ax bites deep: 165 facilities to be shut or slimmed, 43 of them major bases. Civilian jobs lost: 57,144. Major navy bases take the biggest hit--this time.

2 major bases closed

6,424 military jobs affected

3,546 civilian jobs lost

23 major bases closed

64,740 military jobs affected

38,509 civilian jobs lost

4 major bases closed

6,316 military jobs affected

4,217 civilian jobs lost

2 major bases closed

171 military jobs affected

6,682 civilian jobs lost