By a razor thin 49 to 47 vote, the Senate narrowly missed an opportunity to put overseas military bases ahead of domestic facilities in the anticipated 2005 base closure round. I introduced this amendment because a growing number in Congress feel it's time that we radically rethink America's antiquated commitment to aging Cold-War-era military bases overseas, especially in Western Europe where politically temperamental nations like Germany and France should start shouldering their own defense burden. The close vote shows support for changing or delaying the base closure process is growing, and this vote signals a significant shift in the base closure issue.
The Pentagon plans to close 25 percent of all domestic military bases, without first reviewing the expansive and expensive commitments in former Cold War hotspots. In my view, that's backwards. Jeopardizing already busy domestic installations - especially training facilities like Naval Air Station Meridian or Columbus Air Force Base - would be foolish in the midst of a war.
Most Americans feel we cannot and should not harbor the Cold War specter forever, and this amendment recognizes that, compelling us forward. It helps us better plan for the inevitable restructuring. For instance, a new report by the Congressional Budget Office indicates that four previous base closure rounds have left the U.S. Army with little or no excess to receive troops and equipment returning from overseas. So, a base closure round targeted at 25 percent of our home bases would severely limit our ability to expand the armed forces and restructure them.
There are 721 bases around the world - 310 in Germany alone. We have about 100,000 military personnel in Germany, including heavy armored divisions placed there to deter a Soviet invasion. The Soviet Union is a decade in the political grave. Germany is reunified. The Russians aren't going to attack Western Europe, so why do we need this level and type of commitment there? My amendment simply says let's do an analysis of America's 21st Century overseas needs. Let's indeed do some real and dramatic restructuring and realignment starting in the places most obvious. Then, and only then, would we move forward with a domestic base closure round if we find it's needed.
The House has passed a separate base closure amendment, attempting not to redefine base closure and weight it toward overseas bases. Instead, the House's measure simply seeks to delay the base closure process until 2007. That makes sense, too. I've contended for months that base closure right now presents a two-pronged problem. Not only is the current base closure process wrong, the timing of closing bases in wartime is wrong as well. I'm going to work in support of the House's provision when the Senate and House versions of our Department of Defense Authorization Bill are melded into one during the upcoming House/Senate conference.
I'll also be offering other amendments regarding base closure, which could include another initiative to compel a first shot at overseas installations. Given the close vote, I believe the Senate should reconsider a new version of my amendment, especially considering that four Senators were absent when the vote was called. I also am supporting an initiative that would prohibit the Pentagon from mothballing bases. Closed bases should be available to local communities for economic development and local job creation, not allowed to sit idle.
Military communities throughout America are concerned about base closure. Foreign communities ought to be more worried about U.S. military restructuring. Regardless of the outcome of this narrow vote, the question still begs an answer: What is more important - modern, expandable bases in America, or outdated, expendable bases overseas? Most taxpaying Americans know the answer. 5/20/04
Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column. Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (Attention Press Office)