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Base Closings Would Transform Military
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
November 22, 2004

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The next round of military base closings will save money by paring the budget. But experts at a seminar here last week said the bigger gain would be in transforming the armed forces into a leaner, meaner tool.

Next May, the Pentagon will issue a list of bases to be closed under a process known as BRAC, for Base Realignment and Closing.

The Pentagon says it has 25 percent more base capacity than it needs. In this round of BRAC, the Pentagon says, every base is on the table.

"BRAC will be the most important thing the Department of Defense will do in 2005 to further transformation," said former Navy Capt. Kenneth Beeks, now with a nonprofit group called Business Executives for National Security.

"Transformation" is the Pentagon's buzzword for reshaping a military force that was designed to counter a threat that no longer exists - the Soviet Union. Today's challenges come from the likes of the insurgents in Iraq.

The insurgents lack Soviet-style tanks, fighter planes and heavy artillery pieces. Instead, they fight as guerrillas. Even so, the U.S. armed forces in Iraq are largely built around heavy and hard-to-move weaponry designed to turn back a Soviet invasion of, say, Germany.


Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has made transformation a key priority. He wants to transform today's heavy force into a lighter, more nimble force built around electronics and precision weapons. The electronics can sniff an enemy coming from afar, and the precision weapons can kill the enemy at long range - and with one shot.

The thinking behind transformation - and its progress, or lack of it - was the topic of a two-day seminar here sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Beeks said, "You can't do transformation effectively without BRAC." His thinking: Afghanistan and Iraq have shown the benefits of "jointness"-of America's armed forces working together instead of as rivals.

In Afghanistan, a few Army Green Berets served as target spotters for Air Force bombers. Together, they delivered more crushing firepower than either service could do on its own.

But to fight jointly, the armed forces must first train jointly. And many of the current bases can't accommodate joint training. The BRAC list - the fifth such list since 1988 - will pin down just which bases are too outmoded for transformation.

"Earlier BRAC rounds were about money," said Heritage analyst Jack Spencer. "This one is about transformation," with savings merely a side benefit.

Analyst Christopher Hellman specializes in BRAC matters for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a liberal think tank in Washington. He took much the same view as the others.

Hellman said BRAC's savings - $3 billion to $5 billion a year- could go to more pressing needs. But he also said BRAC would enhance jointness and help transform the armed forces into "a 21st Century force."

A peek at what that transformed force might look like came from Boeing executive Jack Paul of Arlington, Va. The Army has chosen Boeing to design what it calls "the Future Combat Systems" - a collection of aircraft and vehicles, some manned, some robotic, that will find the enemy and then shoot at him.

Although designs are far from complete, this future Army will be largely built around wheeled and lightly armored vehicles. They'll be more muscular than a Humvee but much lighter than a tank or a Bradley infantry fighting vehicle.

Paul showed razzle-dazzle video clips of a robotic flying camera about the size of a wastebasket, and a toy-sized gadget on treads that can climb stairs, traverse rocks and flip itself over.

But for all the high-tech side of transformation, other speakers insisted that change must start with people. Among them was David Grange of Chicago's McCormick Tribune Foundation, who wore the two stars of a major general when he commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in the 1990s.

He told those at the seminar, "You can't focus on a technical base. It's got to be the people. Give me adaptable people armed with old M-1 rifles, and I'll win every time."

Trouble is, Grange said, military culture works against adaptability. "Generals are the reason change doesn't happen," said the former general. "You're a victim of your own experience."

Change of a sort is already under way. Before Iraq, the Army had 33 brigades or their equivalent - 33 combat units of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers. Now, the Army is reshuffling its fighters into more brigades, anywhere from 43 to 48, to be called "units of action."

The aim is to fashion more brigades to ease the rotation burden. These new "units of action" are meant to be deployed in a hurry while packing along the support elements they need to fight on their own.

That sounds like the radical change proposed in 1997 by Army Col. Douglas Macgregor in a book titled "Breaking the Phalanx." Macgregor-he soon won a maverick's reputation-charged that organizing the Army around divisions of 15,000 or so soldiers led to a top-heavy, clumsy and awkward fighting force.

Macgregor attended last week's Heritage seminar as a civilian, having retired in June. And despite his book, he was far from upbeat about the Army's reshuffling.

"It's the same old structure with new names," he said. He said the new-look brigade was overburdened with artillery, lacking in reconnaissance tools and unable to sustain itself in the field.

Like Grange, Macgregor scoffed at the notion that high-tech gadgets could ever provide a flawless picture of the enemy is up to. "That's unrealistic thinking-nonsense," he said.

As for precision weapons, he said that using a $40,000 smart bomb to blow up an enemy pickup truck hardly met the cost-efficiency test.

And, like Grange, Macgregor said a new look demanded new people with fresh perspectives. He said people in uniform "have a predisposition to do in the future what they're done in the past."

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Copyright 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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Copyright 2014 . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


 


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