Synchronize reviews, military panel says

A commission created by Congress to review the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to permanently return to the United States some 70,000 personnel based overseas wants policymakers to hit the brakes.

The independent Commission on Review of Overseas Military Facility Structure of the United States is urging the Defense Department to connect the dots between ongoing operations such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other strategic analyses, such as the quadrennial defense review and the upcoming round of domestic base closures.

The six commission members are scheduled to testify today to the Appropriations Military Construction Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). Hutchison and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sponsored the legislation to create the panel in 2003.

“We are hoping that Congress uses this [report] as a spark to generate additional debate and discussion,” said commissioner Brig. Gen. Keith Martin, who isretired from the Army National Guard. He added that he hoped the discussion would lead to the necessary synchronization and coordination for the overseas base closure process to be successful.

The proposed restationing of U.S. military forces overseas “is an enormous undertaking,” Feinstein said in a statement Thursday. “This new report by the Overseas Basing Commission concludes that the Defense Department may be rushing into a wholesale rearrangement of U.S. forces without adequate input or a thorough analysis of the costs and impact on our armed forces.”

Feinstein echoed the commission’s recommendation that the global basing strategy be synchronized — in terms of pace, timing and cost — with ongoing operations.

“The Department of Defense is doing a very good job in determining where our troops can best train and be deployed,” Hutchison said.

The Defense Department’s Integrated Global Presence and Basing Strategy is based on the notion that modern U.S. military forces will be more flexible and able to react to conflicts faster. Troops will no longer be tied to permanent bases, such as the ones in Germany and Korea, for example, and will be able to deploy from forward operating sites and cooperative security locations in key strategic areas around the globe. Part of the Pentagon’s strategy to shift forces around the globe will be rotations in Eastern European countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, the newest members of NATO.

“The Commission fully understands the need for change and endorses much of what is planned and already in process,” the report said. The commission agreed that the movement of a heavy brigade out of Korea and the shifting of the remaining forces south of the Han River “make eminently good sense.” However, while the commission sees the “wisdom of returning to the United States the majority of Army forces from Central Europe,” it is recommending that the service keep one heavy brigade there to demonstrate commitment to NATO, Kosovo and the Balkans and to hedge against future uncertainties related to the planned rotational units in Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, bringing the forces home is bound to trigger a series of issues, the commission warned. To bring the personnel to the United States permanently, arrangements need to be made to accommodate the troops and their families on domestic bases and in the respective communities. The hearing of this report comes within days of the highly anticipated release of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission list.

While the department may not have adequate housing and infrastructure for those troops, it also may lack enough ships and aircraft to redeploy overseas.

“To launch major realignments of bases and unit configurations at a time we are in the midst of two major conflicts (Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom) takes us to the edge of our capabilities,” the report said. “The intercontinental and intra-theater movement of operational units will impact force readiness for a period of time.”

The commission has expressed concern that strategic sea- and airlift are inadequate to transport the necessary personnel from the United States to a conflict area. “We have got to meet the lift requirements,” said Al Cornella, the commission’s chairman. Without a viable solution, he said, “surging forces from the continental United States will be problematic.”

The Defense Department is expected to come out with a mobility-capabilities study at the end of June, Martin said, and that may be able to shed light on how this issue could be approached. The commission, however, did not have insights into the mobility study, he said, nor did it have access to “the inner-workings” of the quadrennial defense review. The commissioners are expecting to appear in front of the independent BRAC Commission.

The presence and basing strategy was based largely on the 2001 quadrennial review, which took place before the attacks of Sept. 11 and the ensuing deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2005 review is expected to bring more change.

The overseas base closure is competing for funds in a cash strapped Defense Department that is trying to pay for operations and modernization of its forces at the same time. The Pentagon estimates implementation of the global presence and basing strategy to cost between $9 billion and $12 billion, but the commission’s analysis puts the price tag at $20 billion.

“Congress should be informed of the realistic cost,” Cornella said. “Congressional oversight is truly necessary.”

The Defense Department has deployed 12,500 troops from South Korea to Iraq. Those troops are scheduled to return to the United States later this year. The Pentagon also plans to begin moving a division out of Europe by the middle of 2007.