After hinting last year that the military might be headed for the Mother Of All Base Closings, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scaling back expectations as he prepares to send a list of proposed changes to a congressionally-chartered commission. Some administration insiders are describing the list as a “dud,” even though it closes dozens of sites and moves thousands of jobs among those that survive. The reality is that Rumsfeld’s recommendations are a big deal, but their significance is reflected more in the way that missions are realigned than in the number of facilities that are closed. Here are four patterns in the recommendations that reveal much about the military’s future direction.
Go West. Threats to America traditionally have originated in Europe, so much of the nation’s military force is concentrated on or near the East Coast. But when the CIA briefed members of the base closure commission on future threats last week, it focused on challenges in the Persian Gulf and East Asia. The implication is that more of the military’s submarines and bombers need to be based in places like Guam, Hawaii, California and Washington — an outcome reflected in Pentagon proposals.
Go South. The military is following private industry out of the Frostbelt and into the Sunbelt. The Northeast and upper Midwest are losing defense jobs while virtually every state in the Deep South is gaining. This is partly about the cost of living and the availability of land, but it is also about who supports the military: if the local congressional delegation has been working hard for decades to get money and missions into nearby bases, they’re going to look pretty good on paper.
Go Joint. Secretary Rumsfeld has made sharing among the services a touchstone of military transformation. More than in any previous base closure round, this year’s recommendations will seek to save money by consolidating overlapping functions at multiservice (“joint”) facilities. That’s especially true of support activities such as equipment maintenance, weapons testing, research and supply.
Go Private. Military planners don’t like to rely too heavily on the marketplace for services because they fear suppliers will abandon them when demand turns down in peacetime. The result is a sprawling infrastructure of government-owned ammo plants, depots and supply centers that most of the time is under-utilized. Deputy defense secretary-designate Gordon England has told Rumsfeld that reengineering and privatizing these sites should be a focus of military transformation, and the base closure recommendations will reflect that goal.
It remains to be seen whether members of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission agree with the administration’s priorities. Some of the commissioners understand areas like weapons testing and equipment maintenance at least as well as Pentagon policymakers do. So there is a distinct possibility of surprise outcomes in this summer’s deliberations. Stay tuned.
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