Administration seeks base closings, budget boost

The Bush administration has decided to seek additional military base closures starting in 2003, and next year will request the biggest overall increase in defense spending in more than a decade, Defense Department officials said Wednesday.

The military services have about 25 percent too many bases, Defense Comptroller Dov Zakheim said at a press briefing. Eliminating excess facilities could save Defense $3.5 billion, he said.

The Pentagon has not yet decided whether it will ask Congress for a single round of base closures or multiple rounds, nor have Defense officials drawn up a list of bases that they believe should be closed.

"We are all across the map on this," Zakheim said. But the annoucement marks the first time the Bush's administration has set a specific timetable for restarting the base-closing process.

Congress would have to pass a law permitting additional base closures. In four previous rounds of closures, an independent commission, appointed by lawmakers, made recommendations on bases that should be closed and the lists were submitted to Congress and the President for approval or rejection. Proposals for a similar commission are already being discussed on Capitol Hill.

In previous rounds, Defense closed and realigned 97 bases, saving $15 billion thus far. The amended fiscal 2002 Defense budget request released Wednesday would provide a $32.6 billion increase over the fiscal 2001 Defense spending level--an inflation-adjusted boost of 7 percent.

"This is the biggest increase since the mid-1980s," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Nonetheless, the request for $328.9 billion in funding for Defense next year--$18.4 billion more than the administration sought earlier this year in a "placeholder" budget submitted to Congress--does little more than begin to shore up existing programs and improve the quality of life for service members, Rumsfeld acknowledged. "You cannot [fix] everything in a single year. It took years to get into this," he said. Conditions at the Defense Department were far worse than the administration believed before taking office, Defense officials said. A top priority will be to upgrade military facilities and housing and fully fund personnel and benefits accounts--budget categories the department has routinely underfunded in recent years.

"People are central to our success and we have to improve the conditions under which they live and work," Rumsfeld said. Specifically, the administration made funding proposals for the following areas:

  • Pay: Personnel funding would increase from $75 billion this year to $82 billion in fiscal 2002. This would fund a pay increase of 5 percent for every service member, and as much as 10 percent for some enlisted personnel and mid-grade officers.
  • Health care: The budget will cover what Defense officials said is the most realistic estimate of military healthcare costs in years--$17.9 billion, up from $12.1 billion this year. The increase will fund improved pharmaceuticals for service members, and includes $3.9 billion for expanding prescription and medical benefits for Medicare-eligible military retirees and their families.
  • Housing: The administration requested $4.1 billion for family housing, including $1.1 billion to construct or renovate about 6,500 family housing units and privatize more than 30,000 units. The budget would also increase the housing allowance for military members who live off base. The goal is to reduce out-of-pocket housing expenses by 2005.
  • Readiness: Operations and maintenance accounts will increase to $126 billion in 2002 from $108 billion this year. The increase is designed to boost aircraft flying hours, base and facility support operations and depot maintenance. However, some readiness areas, such as tank training in the Army, will see a decline in funding.
  • Management: The Pentagon plans to spend about $100 million to design a new financial management architecture, which eventually could cost as much as $2 billion.
Other than deciding to buy an additional DD-51 guided missile destroyer next year and reducing the B-1 bomber fleet, the budget proposal makes few significant changes to Defense procurement programs. Any major decisions to cancel or modify weapons programs has been deferred to the 2003 budget, after the Pentagon completes its Quadrennial Defense Review, said Zakheim.
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