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Latest round of closures brings Oklahoma bases under scrutiny

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- At least two Air Force bases in Oklahoma could face stiff competition for survival in the military's first round of base closures in a decade, but officials also believe efforts to protect them will help the state again dodge a bullet.

No one knows what bases could be targeted when the months-long review process begins in March.

But of the state's five installations, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Altus Air Force Base and Vance Air Force Base in Enid face the greatest challenge staying off the closure list.

"But I think they're still pretty well situated," said Cole, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "We're just not going to be complacent where these facilities are concerned."

The two pilot-training bases are small enough that their missions could be easily moved to another base, Cole said. But both also offer nearly unlimited air space and have solid backing from local communities.

"I'd rather be either of those two bases than their competitors," he said. "I think we could even see those bases absorbing missions from other bases."

Since 1988, 97 major bases and 290 smaller installations across the country have been shut down or consolidated through four rounds of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Oklahoma is one of only seven states that has not lost a base.

Fort Sill Army Post in Lawton, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City and the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant also will be reviewed.

From McAlester, where TNT is packed into Iraq-bound bombs, to Altus, where heavy cargo planes circle the skies, the bases provide more than 55,000 military and civilian jobs and have a $4.8 billion economic impact in the state.

"We can't afford to lose any of the installations, and we won't if I have anything to say about it," Gov. Brad Henry said.

Henry and other state created the Oklahoma Military Strategic Planning Committee, which was charged with allocating $1.5 million in state funds to help with improvements such as renovations to the base gates at Altus and a traffic study at Tinker.

But "right now we are just Ouija-boarding it," said retired Army Col. Jerald E. Kleager, a member of the committee and a former commanding officer at the McAlester plant. "We don't know what the criteria is."

Cole said previous rounds closed the bases with glaring deficiencies, making the competition tougher.

"The low-hanging fruit has already been picked," he said. "Our competitors are getting better, but still I would like to see them match the efforts we've made."

One analyst believes the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant could be threatened and called it "the most marginal" of Oklahoma's five installations. The Army is planning to close some ammunition plants, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Arlington, Va.-based think tank, Lexington Institute.

The closure process begins with President Bush's nominations in March to the nine-member BRAC commission.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon will forward a list of bases recommended for realignment or closure to the independent board by May 16. The commission will decide which bases to close, and Congress can accept or reject -- but cannot change -- that decision.

Military officials have said there is no target number of bases to be closed. But Rumsfeld has said the military has about 20 percent to 25 percent excess capacity in its 425 major military installations.

The Pentagon's criteria for closing military bases gives priority to "military value," including operational readiness and condition of facilities. Secondary consideration goes to the impact on local communities and the environment.

The closure process began in 1988 as the Cold War ended and declines in defense spending forced officials to look at shedding unneeded facilities and overhead.

Although BRAC was intended to sidestep the kind of politics that stymied base streamlining in the 1970s and 1980s, many acknowledge the importance of having some influence in the process.

"They say it's not a political process, but it's Washington. Everything is political," said former Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., who opposed further rounds of base closures in part because "it would cripple western Oklahoma."

During debate of a massive defense spending bill last year, the U.S. House broke with the Bush administration in voting to delay the closure process by two years. Lawmakers expressed concern about the economic losses to their districts and about the timing with the ongoing war in Iraq.

Within minutes of the House vote, the White House announced that the defense secretary would recommend the president veto any bill that "weakens, delays or repeals" the base closing authority.

An effort in the Senate by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., to delay the next round failed by two votes.

"Because of what the base closures did to our military in the 1990s, we're having to rebuild it ... and we're at war," Inhofe said. "We cannot afford to be cutting down our resources at this time."

Oklahoma has the benefit of having Cole, Inhofe and freshman Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., serving on the Armed Services committees in the House and Senate.

"I think that will help a great deal," said Don Davis, the governor's chief legislative liaison who worked with the state BRAC panel.

"And with both Representatives Cole and Boren, you have both parties represented there too, and I think that's very good situation for Oklahoma," he said.
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