BY BEN GOAD
WASHINGTON BUREAU
bgoad@pe.com

Published: 21 March 2012 06:10 PM

WASHINGTON — As Congress and the Pentagon clashed Wednesday over whether to go forward with proposed base closures next year, a top Air Force official said it’s too soon to tell if — or how — any cuts would be felt at Inland Southern California’s military installations.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has urged Congress to approve two rounds of closures in 2013 and 2015, and the Defense Department wants to cut spending. Military officials say a drawdown of forces associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be accompanied by changes through the Base Realignment and Closure process, known as BRAC.

The U.S. Air Force alone spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to maintain excess holdings, Assistant Air Force Secretary Terry Yonkers told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“This excess capacity can only be effectively limited by closing installations,” Yonkers said in written testimony to the panel. “We need Congress’ help and support — we can’t do BRAC if you’re not in our corner on this.”

On Wednesday, Congress was not in the military’s corner. Democrats and Republicans alike, mindful of painful and controversial 2005 realignments and closures, said clearly that they oppose a 2013 round of closures.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee with jurisdiction over the base closures, noted that the upfront costs of the 2005 closures were higher than anticipated. According to a government estimate, it will be 2018 before the costs are recouped through the savings associated with maintaining fewer bases, she said.

McCaskill, D-Mo., said government auditors still haven’t completed a final analysis of the 2005 realignment and closings. A premature round could have a devastating effect on communities that rely on bases for jobs and revenue, she said.

“I will not support a process that is casual and one that is rushed before we fully comprehend what about this task is clearly in the best interest of the American taxpayer and our national security,” McCaskill said. “The department has a long way to go before it proves to me that these additional criteria have been met.”

Locally, March Air Reserve Base and the military training centers at Twentynine Palms and Fort Irwin survived the 2005 BRAC relatively unscathed. But previous rounds closed Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino and George Air Force Base in Victorville, and March Air Force Base was downsized to an Air Reserve Base. The cuts cost the region more than $3 billion annually, according to estimates.

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