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Friday, August 26, 2005

Base Closing Panel Backs Ellsworth Air Force Base - New York Times

Base Closing Panel Backs Ellsworth Air Force Base - New York TimesAugust 26, 2005
Base Closing Panel Backs Ellsworth Air Force Base

WASHINGTON, Aug. 26 - The independent commission reviewing the Pentagon's plan to close or reorient hundreds of military bases voted today to keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, rejecting the Defense Department's recommendation.

The 8-to-1 vote is a big victory for Senator John Thune, the Republican who last fall defeated Tom Daschle, then the Senate's Democratic leader, on a promise to use his clout to spare the base.

The decision on Ellsworth, South Dakota's second-largest employer, was one of the most politically sensitive to come before the panel in its three days of hearings this week.

Senator Thune told reporters at the hearings that the decision was a big step in "meeting the emerging threats of the future" He added, "South Dakota needs Ellsworth, but we believe that America also needs Ellsworth."

Asked whether he was politically strengthened by the decision, Senator Thune said: "This fight was not about me. It was all about the people of South Dakota and Rapid City who were impacted by the decision. This whole decision was about the merits. It had nothing to do with politics."

Later today, the commission will consider another hotly contested proposal when it decides the fate of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Most famous for its cold war-era arsenal of missiles and nuclear bombers aimed at the Soviet Union, Ellsworth is home to half the nation's fleet of B1-B bombers. The Pentagon had wanted to move all the bombers to Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

On Thursday, the commission decided to create a major new medical center for troops just outside Washington, by merging the operations of the aging Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the nearby National Naval Medical Center.

The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted 8 to 0 with one abstention to close the nearly 100-year-old Walter Reed hospital on Washington's outskirts and expand the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

A new 340-bed hospital would be built at the Bethesda site, which the Pentagon is planning to name the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Walter Reed, which has been treating many of the most severely wounded soldiers from Iraq, will remain open while the new facility is being built, which will take several years. Walter Reed normally operates about 200 beds.

Commissioners said they believed that the Pentagon's $989 million estimate for building the new hospital understated the likely cost, but said they were endorsing the move anyway because of the opportunity to build a state-of-the-art facility for treating wounded troops.

"Whatever it costs, we need to incur that cost to provide that world-class care to an extraordinary group of men and women in harm's way," said the commission's chairman, Anthony J. Principi, the former secretary of veterans affairs.

City officials in Washington have questioned the benefit of closing Walter Reed and shifting the medical care it provides to Bethesda, several miles away. But the Pentagon has argued that a single facility serving all the military services would be more efficient and improve care, by combining specialists in one place.

The Pentagon said the shift would save $301 million over 20 years and that most of the 5,630 jobs at Walter Reed will move to the new hospital.

On Thursday, its second day of deliberations on a final list to present to the president and Congress, the commission made few major changes to the Pentagon blueprint, which would close or consolidate 62 large military bases and 775 smaller installations and assign new missions to many existing facilities.

But in a rebuff to the Defense Department, the commission voted 7 to 2 late Thursday against sharply reducing the operations at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, opting to keep 24 F-16 fighters at the base, rather than moving them to an installation in Nevada.

The Pentagon had wanted to shut down most of the base's operations, except for brief periods when planes would be sent there to train on its expansive bombing ranges. The plan would have saved $1.8 billion over 20 years, the Pentagon said.

But commissioners said partly closing the base was not feasible because harsh Alaska winters required constant upkeep of the facilities. The commission went along with the Pentagon plan to move some A-10 attack planes from the base, but voted to keep the F-16s there, which would ensure the base remains open year-round.

Also on Thursday, the commission approved moving more than 20,000 military and civilian jobs from leased offices in northern Virginia to various military bases in the state, including Fort Belvoir, Fort Lee and the Marine Corps base in Quantico. The Pentagon proposed the shift to save money and to protect employees better from possible terrorist attacks by putting them within military installations.

The panel also agreed to close Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio and relocate most of its operations to Fort Sam Houston in the same city. The new facility will help train medics and other medical personnel for all the services, consolidating training that now occurs around the country.

Over all, the Pentagon has said it would save nearly $50 billion in the next 20 years if all its proposals are adopted this year. But on Wednesday the commission removed two major installations from the list- the Navy submarine base in Groton, Conn., and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Me., which reduced the expected savings by around $2.9 billion.

The commission, which was created by Congress, intends to finish its deliberations on Friday. By Sept. 8, it must send its recommendations to President Bush, who has said he intends to forward the plan to Congress.

Congress can then vote to accept or reject the list as a whole; it is barred from making changes by the law that created the commission. In the four previous rounds of base closing, Congress has allowed the commission's list to go into effect without a vote.

Terence Neilan contributed reporting from New York for this article.

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