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Commission Votes on Military Base Closings


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

An independent commission today charged with deciding the fate of dozens of large military bases and hundreds of smaller installation has begun voting on a list of bases slated for closing. Civilian communities and local economies in every state will be affected by the decisions reached by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission, or BRAC. Already this morning, there's celebration in Connecticut. The BRAC panel voted to keep open the US Navy submarine base in Groton, even as it closed other installations. The Pentagon says closing the bases on its list will save $49 billion over the next 20 years. The Government Accountability Office has challenged this estimate. It says that since military personnel won't be cut, but for the most part simply relocated, the savings could be as little has half of the Pentagon's estimate. Former secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Prinicipi is chairman of BRAC, which is meeting just outside Washington. I asked him about the balance the commission is trying to strike between saving tax dollars and maintaining military preparedness.

Mr. ANTHONY PRINCIPI (Chairman, BRAC): Military value is very important, but you can't divorce the cost savings from that analysis. It's very important because if you're not saving any money and it's costing money, then it does impact your military value because you don't have the dollars that you need to modernize your Air Force or to improve the quality of life for your soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. So we're going to look at both. But first and foremost is how does this realignment or this closure benefit our military capability to meet any national security threat that we might face over the next 20 years?

MONTAGNE: Do you feel comfortable taking any base off this list? I mean, if the commission chooses to take 20 percent of the bases off instead of the normal, I believe it's 10 to 15 percent that get removed, can you do that?

Mr. PRINCIPI: Sure. I feel very comfortable with doing what's right. I said from the very beginning that I did not want to be a rubber stamp, that we wanted to look at this independently and objectively, and that's what Congress commissioned us. So I suspect that you'll see some changes to this list. I can't say with any certainty how many bases will be taken off, but I'm sure that there will be some.

MONTAGNE: How about a theoretical example, the kind of base you could see yourself taking off the list?

Mr. PRINCIPI: Well, let's just take Portsmouth Naval Shipyard up in Kittery, Maine. Now it's slated for closure. And it's slated for closure because, you know, we've had a decline in the number of nuclear-powered submarines in our arsenal. On the other hand, you have a great shipyard with great people turning submarines around in half the time some other shipyards take to repair or maintain a sub, refuel a sub. So those are the kinds of tough issues, but that's one base that theoretically could come off the list.

MONTAGNE: Could you add a base to the BRAC list...


MONTAGNE: the closure list?

Mr. PRINCIPI: Yes, we have. We've added eight bases for consideration.

MONTAGNE: Could you describe one base that you've added, why you think that it should at least be considered for closure?

Mr. PRINCIPI: Well, the one that's most controversial would be Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, and it's the Navy's master jet base, fighter base, F-18s. Over the past 30 years, the encroachment, if you will, of houses and shopping malls and schools and hospitals have come closer and closer to the fence line, and so there are issues with regard to training and the pilots who are doing practice landings before they make a carrier landing at night in the rolling seas, you know, have to alter their approach patterns and their takeoff patterns so it's not consistent with the way they would land on an aircraft carrier. Also there are concerns about safety to the people around the base. So we just added it to look at it, to see if there were other options.

MONTAGNE: Some of these communities--this is going to have a terrible economic impact on the community. I mean, it's certainly the case with Ellsworth Air Base outside Rapid City. How much will that weigh into your consideration for these next few days?

Mr. PRINCIPI: Well, it weighs heavily on our minds, you know. We have to continue to focus on military value, but--it certainly weighs on my mind. You only hope that if you close a military base, that Defense and the other agencies of government are going to come in, entrepreneurs as well, and convert that installation and all of the assets, the infrastructure on that installation, to a viable commercial use. And that has happened in the overwhelming number of communities impacted by previous BRAC rounds, not every one, but certainly a great many--we've seen incomes go up and we've seen wonderful developments that have served the interest of that community, that state, very well. But in the short term, you know, in the years shortly after bases close, that's very, very difficult, and I don't underestimate that difficulty and I'm very sensitive to it.

MONTAGNE: Anthony Principi is chairman of the BRAC commission, which begins its final round of votes and recommendations for base closings today. Thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. PRINCIPI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.