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Pentagon surprises Congress with BRAC proposal

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WASHINGTON — The Defense Department needs an additional round of base closures as the military — especially the Army — draws down from war zones and shrinks by tens of thousands of soldiers, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday.

The Pentagon’s request for base closures comes on the heels of the just-completed 2005 round and requires congressional approval. The idea drew a chilly response from some lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who said he was “more than just a little annoyed” that the announcement contradicted the guidance his office had received from the department just a month ago that officials were not contemplating base realignment and closure.

Both lawmakers are members of the congressional Armed Services committees, the first stop for the proposal.

Mr. Panetta, at a Pentagon news conference with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, said the proposal is a key part of the military’s effort to slash about $487 billion over ten years as directed by Congress last year, although he acknowledged that potential BRAC savings — which the department did not detail — were deliberately left out of the department’s budget projections. The Pentagon aims to reduce the Army from about 562,000 active duty soldiers now to 490,000 by 2017 and does not need all the base infrastructure it has to support them, he said.

“It’s fundamental problem we have to confront,” Mr. Panetta said. “The reality is we have to be able to reduce that infrastructure.”

Asked about the skepticism the department will face on Capitol Hill, Mr. Panetta, a former congressman, said, “I’ve been through BRAC, I know its weaknesses and failings.”

But he also said that the base closure process, in which an independent commission drafts a list of installations for closure and realignment, for a straight up or down vote by Congress with no changes, is the most effective and politically acceptable process for reducing the military’s excess base capacity.

In the north country, the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization’s executive director, Carl A. McLaughlin, asserted the Drum’s importance. While its status as the home of the 10th Mountain Division is well known around the country, it is also a major training ground for the National Guard and Reserves and plays a growing role in the military’s reliance on drone aircraft.

“I expect the Department of Defense and the Pentagon will continue to turn to this asset because they need to,” Mr. McLaughlin said.“Whatever the situation, they need this kind of unit.”

“I just think we have to tell our story correctly. We tell our story by our record,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

Mr. Owens said he would fight to protect Fort Drum. Although he and Mrs. Gillibrand have long said they believe the post is not a likely target for big reductions and might actually benefit from assets moved from other locations. Other installations in the state, such as Rome Labs and Fort Hamilton, in New York City, have come up more often in discussions about vulnerable real estate.

Mrs. Gillibrand said in a statement that a BRAC round ”can be very harmful to the economic wellbeing of many communities, without producing significant savings.”

“I think we should not rush any BRAC proposal,” Mrs. Gillibrand said.

In the last BRAC round, the Pentagon reaffirmed an earlier decision that added a brigade combat team but stationed it at Fort Polk, La. Fort Drum escaped the process largely unscathed.

The round in 2005, however, did not reflect a major reduction in the size of the Army; indeed the Army was growing at the time in response to 9-11. Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushed that round as a way to trim overhead and focus on warfighting needs.

Mr. Owens said he would rather see the Pentagon focus on some $150 billion that former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had told Congress he could achieve through operating more efficient within the department. “That’s really where we should be going,” Mr. Owens said.

In addition, Mr. Owens said he is curious how much a new BRAC round will cost up front; closures always cost more than they save in the early years.

Mr. Panetta said officials left out any savings estimates in the announcement because they worried that if Congress does not approve the proposal, the department’s budget would be thrown into disarray.

The proposal, to be detailed further in the administration’s early February budget release, contains other sharp measures, such as further increases in some retirees’ out of pocket costs for the Tricare health insurance program.

Even if lawmakers agree with Mr. Panetta’s base closure proposal, the prospects in this election year would be questionable. Typically, lawmakers wait until a non-election year.

The announcement appeared to catch congressional offices off guard, on the day after lawmakers left for an extended weekend. Mr. Panetta said key lawmakers were briefed Wednesday night.

“I’m very disturbed with how they went about this,” Mr. Owens said. “No one knew about this when we left yesterday.”

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