WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's chief hopes he can sell the idea of military base closures to Congress and communities by offering to mothball or only partially shutter some sites.
"We are anxious to get Congress' cooperation to let us 'pickle' some" facilities, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in an interview with the Associated Press. "Pickling" means to stop using a base but not sell the property.
He said he'd like a more innovative approach than the all-or-nothing, keep 'em or close 'em battles that have roiled Congress, the military and communities nationwide since the end of the Cold War.
A slumping economy might stiffen Congress' resistance — and heighten political problems for the Bush administration, Rumsfeld acknowledged. Nevertheless, he said, the billions of dollars in potential savings are substantial, and the money is needed to update the military.
Many politicians oppose closing bases because it can hurt local economies. Rumsfeld dismissed their concerns.
"Life's hard," he said.
"Yeah, it might" be more difficult to sell in Congress now that the economic boom is over. "But first of all, the economy's still growing, it's not in the dumps. And second, national security is darned important."
Rumsfeld spoke Friday from his office overlooking the Potomac River. At 69, he is serving his second stint as defense secretary; he held the post in 1975-1977 in the Ford administration.
In the 45-minute interview, Rumsfeld acknowledged the administration's difficulties in persuading Russia to set aside a 1972 arms control treaty prohibiting national missile defense but said high-level talks will continue this fall. He said he plans to discuss the situation with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, in Naples, Italy, in late September.
On internal matters, the secretary said he'll announce a plan this week to substantially reduce the Pentagon bureaucracy by combining some civilian and military staffs in the armed services, reducing layers of civilian management and making across-the-board cuts in headquarters personnel.
Rumsfeld indicated the reductions would be less than 10 percent but declined to give a specific figure or estimate how much could be saved. The across-the-board cuts would unfortunately resemble the "mindless, crude" reductions institutions sometimes are compelled to make out of economic necessity, he said.
At the same time, Rumsfeld said he would take special care to ensure that truly vital functions are not eliminated. "You don't want to simply blindly reduce numbers in an organization where you have a thin veneer of civilian leadership," he said.
Rumsfeld described armed forces as under financial "duress," and said he must find savings wherever he can.
"We have enormous needs for funds that are not being met in areas that have been neglected over the decade," he said.
The administration has asked Congress to approve $329 billion in defense spending for the budget year starting Oct. 1, $33 billion more than this year. But that increase — the largest since the mid-1980s — would not correct all the military's problems.
On gleaning savings from base closures, Rumsfeld argued there are several alternatives to simply closing a base:
Mothballing some bases. He called this "pickling": stop using the base but not sell the property. This avoids the often-enormous expense of environmental cleanup and keeps the base available for use later in a national emergency. Taking this approach could save "a bucket of dollars." he said.
Close only part of a base.
Mothball part of a base and keep the rest open.
Move people from high-rent office space onto bases that have extra room.
Keep a base open but lease part of it rather than sell it.
The goal, Rumsfeld said, is to "try to do it a way with the minimal trauma on the community. Get into it, get it over with."
Rumsfeld said he was encouraged that the Senate Armed Services Committee voted Friday for a new round of base closures. He noted that some members who voted for it this time had opposed such a move last year.
The Pentagon wants an independent commission in 2003 to act on a list of bases it recommends for closing or consolidation. Rumsfeld said a single round of cuts could save the Pentagon $3 billion a year, although the benefits would not be seen for several years.
There have been four rounds of base closings — in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 — affecting 97 major bases. The round first was the work of a one-time commission, while the final three were set up under a 1990 law.