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Base-closing panel questions proposals

Liz Sidoti Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The base-closing commission expressed deep reservations Monday about parts of the Pentagon’s proposal to restructure domestic military bases, including its plan to disband or move dozens of Air National Guard units.

On the eve of a vote by the commission on whether to add about a dozen facilities to those the Defense Department has proposed closing or shrinking, panel members questioned why several were left off the list. These included the Naval Shipyard at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

The skepticism exhibited by members of the independent commission at a hearing was an indication that they won’t rubber-stamp Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s proposal as some in Congress had feared.

In May, Rumsfeld proposed closing or reducing forces at 62 major bases and hundreds of smaller installations to save money and streamline the services.

Commission Chairman Anthony Principi has pledged to analyze the list independently and make changes if needed before sending it to President Bush for approval this fall.

“We want to make sure the best pos-sible closure or realignment choices are made,” Principi said. “It is not our intent to disrupt or to unreasonably target communities that may have breathed a sigh of relief in May when the secretary’s list of recommendations was released, or to further burden communities already facing losses.”

After voting today on whether to add certain bases to the Pentagon’s initial list, the nine-member commission will conduct public hearings, visit the sites and collect data to make direct comparisons with bases that perform similar missions and are slated for closure. Any base on the list can be removed when the commission meets again in August.

For their part, defense officials who testified Monday discouraged changes to Rumsfeld’s list of proposed closures and consolidations.

Nearly every commissioner questioned the Pentagon’s proposal to scrap or shift roughly 30 Air National Guard units by taking away the planes or the missions. By law, governors command Guard forces during statewide emergencies like civil disturbances, floods, hurricanes or forest fires.

State officials complain that Rumsfeld can’t legally move the units without the governors’ consent, and Pennsylvania officials have filed a lawsuit over the issue. The Justice Department is reviewing the matter, and defense officials have asked the commission to refrain from changing the Air National Guard recommendations until that ruling.

Harold Gehman, a commissioner and a retired Navy admiral, called the Air National Guard proposals “unworkable and unsatisfactory.”

Defense officials said the benefits of consolidating the Guard units to achieve a more cohesive force outweigh the drawbacks.

Commission members also questioned the Pentagon’s decision to close the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, instead of the Naval Shipyard at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, given Portsmouth’s reputation for quickly repairing submarines.

Defense officials said a Pacific-based shipyard is essential and that the bases perform slightly different functions.

Several commission members also pressed for an explanation for why the Pentagon decided to leave open the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego – when the Marines already have a recruiting station at Parris Island, S.C., and the other services have consolidated their recruit-training facilities.

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