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Whew! Good thing BRAC wasn’t political

J.R. Labbe Fort Worth Star-Telegram

S ay what you will about BRAC – and plenty is being said today through clenched teeth in states that view themselves as big losers in the base realignment and closure process – the commission managed to prove one thing: It was no rubber stamp for Donald Rumsfeld.

Were the SecDef a thin-skinned fellow, he might take the changes made to his list by the commission as refutation of his vision for the military’s future. Given how many times commissioners chanted that the Department of Defense “substantially deviated from the final selection criteria” before they ignored the Pentagon’s recommendations, Rumsfeld could be feeling downright unappreciated today.

Take the vote to keep open Connecticut’s Naval Submarine Base New London – or “Rotten Groton,” as I grew up hearing it called by my since-deceased stepfather, who was director of manufacturing and facilities for General Dynamics.

Under Rumsfeld’s future force scenario, the Navy won’t need that sub capacity in New England. The commissioners effectively said: “We think there are more subs in our future than you do, Mr. Secretary, and we’ll be keeping this place open, if you don’t mind.”

Same goes for keeping open Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. The commissioners were concerned that the “eggs in one basket” consolidation achieved by moving B-1 bombers from that base to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, would make the fleet vulnerable to attack. At last check, Mexico wasn’t altogether happy with the current U.S. administration, but it’s hard to imagine that it would attack over it.

Surely the Ellsworth turn-around had nothing to do with the fact that John Thune, a rookie Republican senator who defeated one of the Democratic lions of lawmaking (like him or don’t, Tom Daschle was a force to contend with in Washington), staked his entire political career on keeping Ellsworth open.

Everyone with a piece on the BRAC chessboard has said from the get-go that the process was designed to keep politics out of the game. They just forgot to tell the politicians.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was blabbering Friday morning on C-SPAN about how he lobbied the commission hard to keep Cannon Air Force Base open. Richardson claimed that he’d made friends with some of the commissioners. Samuel Skinner was obviously one of them, considering that he jumped through all kinds of hoops to keep Cannon open until at least December 2009 rather than close it. Richardson’s justification for Cannon’s continued operational status had nothing – nothing! – to do with military readiness or future force structure. All he could talk about was the need to keep those jobs on line.

BRAC watchers who rightfully preach the “there’s life after BRAC” message in their belief that the Defense Department should be something more than a jobs program contend that politics has been part of this round more clearly than in some previous rounds – with the exception of the in-your-face decision made in 1995, right before President Clinton’s re-election push, to “privatize in place” rather than close California’s McClellan AFB.

If the Air Force is unhappy with the 2005 commission’s decisions, it has to take some of the blame for doing a half-hearted job of putting together a BRAC package that demonstrated strategic coherence. (Of course, the flying brass were kinda distracted by that pesky Boeing tanker fiasco, sexual harassment charges at the academy and the departure of the old secretary of the Air Force in the middle of the process.)

It’s interesting to note that some lawmakers are taking heat for not politicking enough.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is, as they say, being dog-cussed in some quarters for not doing enough to protect every Texas facility that landed on Rumsfeld’s list. Community leaders think she spent too much time focusing on the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana to the detriment of other bases.

Our senior senator is many things, but stupid is not one of them. She knew where to invest her capital and where to cut bait.

Naval Station Ingleside needed cuttin’. Red River, a vital support facility for maintenance, repair and overhaul of major weapon systems and components, including Humvees, was a fight she could – and did – win.

My favorite part of the process (and this comes from an admittedly pitiful person who enjoys watching the hearings on C-SPAN) was the homeland security rationalization given for keeping open NS Ingleside, near Corpus Christi, Texas. Why, how can Americans sleep soundly knowing that they’ll no longer be protected by a deep-water port that houses a mine warfare force in the Gulf of Mexico?

Exactly what enemies were the mine sweepers – sans destroyers or carriers or any other support fleet – protecting us from? A red tide?

BRAC never has been, and never will be, a process devoid of political influences, but it’s the only way that the Pentagon has to change its infrastructure in response to evolving force strategies. The end result of this round is less than it should be, but it’s unlikely that President Bush or Congress will turn it down because the cuts weren’t deep enough.

They are, after all, politicians.

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