The Politics, and Economics, of Base Closings

Decisions on military base closures are often fraught with concerns that are both monetary and political. For more on the Pentagon's realignment, Robert Siegel talks with Christopher Hellman, defense budget and military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now is Christopher Hellman, defense budget and military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington.

And, Christopher Hellman, you've been watching this process for as long as it's been a process, I gather.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HELLMAN (Defense Budget and Military Policy Analyst, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation): That's correct. Originally, I was a congressional staffer working on base closure issues when the process was instituted back in the late 1980s.

SIEGEL: Well, on a scale from wise and generally apolitical process to very complicated recipe for pork, what are we seeing?

Mr. HELLMAN: I think you're seeing a fairly thoughtful review by the commission of DOD's recommendations for base closures. They have been very activist on a certain number of issues, but they've also very quietly and quickly embraced a large number of what DOD had originally recommended.

SIEGEL: A couple of Air Force base decisions today to keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, that had been slated for closure and which is a big employer in South Dakota, and then a strange status for Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Mr. HELLMAN: Right. In the case of Ellsworth Air Force Base, the commission voted to simply reject the DOD's recommendation to close the facility, so it'll stay as it is with a large fleet of B-1 bombers. In the case of Cannon Air Force Base, it was clear to everybody that the aircraft had to leave. They are quite literally needed elsewhere. But there was also a desire on the part of the commission clearly to provide an alternative to the community which would be devastated by the closure of this facility. It's far and away the largest employer in the region. And so what they've done is create what they call an enclave, which will keep the base open but without aircraft until the end of 2009, and they've directed the secretary of the Air Force to attempt to find a new mission to move in there.

SIEGEL: But for now, an air base without airplanes.

Mr. HELLMAN: It's exactly what it is, yeah.

SIEGEL: Has the Pentagon lost a lot here? I mean, is this unusual, the number of high-profile cases in which they've been overruled?

Mr. HELLMAN: Well, one of the things to keep in mind is that traditionally, the base closure commission embraces about 80 percent of DOD's recommendations. And while the Defense Department has lost a couple of high-profile cases, very quietly and very quickly, the commission has processed large numbers of smaller and less controversial DOD decisions in favor of the Department of Defense. So I think that if you look at the overall ratio of wins to losses, what you'll find is they're pretty much in line with what the past would have led us to believe to be the case.

What is interesting about a couple of the most high-profile cases is the amount of savings they were expected to generate. For instance, the two bases in New England, Groton and Portsmouth, were each supposed to generate about a billion dollars in savings over a 20-year period. Ellsworth Air Force Base was estimated to save almost 3 billion over a 20-year period. DOD was expecting to reap almost $50 billion in savings from all of their closure initiatives, and yet those three bases alone could account for about 10 percent of that. So that is probably a setback for DOD.

SIEGEL: Is it understood, and was it understood from the start in this process, that one factor in decision-making would be: Would outright closure of, say, Cannon Air Force Base deal a terrible blow to the local economy, and therefore, we should consider that in our approach? Or is it supposed to be completely unrelated--local economic concerns unrelated to these base decisions?

Mr. HELLMAN: To say that the economic--local economic concerns were unrelated would be overstating it. They were clearly lower priority. The Pentagon had eight criteria that it used for selecting its bases. The top four were all about the military value and how they support the military mission. Economic criteria was in the bottom half.

SIEGEL: Can you look at the outcome of the commission's work and say, `Here's a way in which US defenses are evolving. We can see that process in the decisions of what's been closed and what's been kept open'?

Mr. HELLMAN: Well, I think you can see it a little bit. Some of DOD's recommendations, in particular some of the ones that weren't adopted, I think, lended themselves very nicely to this idea that we're getting away from fighting World War III and moving towards a more modern military with a structure that supports it.

Some of those have gone away, but the commission has also been very careful to do what they think is appropriate with supporting what the military refers to as transformation, a component of which is jointness, which is getting the services to work better together and share resources more readily than they currently do.

So what you see here in this process is signs that they're moving in the right direction and in a couple of important first steps, but not really an overall embracing of the 21st-century force that we hear so much about.

SIEGEL: Well, Christopher Hellman, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. HELLMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mr. Hellman is a defense budget and military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington, DC.

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