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A war game played for keeps

Lt. Gen. C.C. "Buck" Rogers has spent time at both MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami, and there's no doubt in his mind which installation is superior. "MacDill is a world-class facility," says Rogers, who retired in April after a 34-year career in the Air Force. "The facilities up here are appreciably better than at Homestead."

Both bases were penciled in last week as sites for possible closure. The move was made by the Base Closure Commission, now hurrying to meet a July 1 deadline to submit to President Bush a list of military installations recommended for closure or realignment.

Nobody says it's an either-or situation between MacDill and Homestead. But military experts say the similarity of the bases and the unlikelihood both would be shut down at once make that debate a viable one.

"It makes no sense to close down both," said Rogers, former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command at MacDill and part of a task force trying to keep the Tampa base open. "The strategic proximity to Cuba, Central America and South America" makes retaining one of them critical for the United States.

The Air Force estimates it would cost $220-million to close MacDill and $98-million to close Homestead. The Defense Department initially tagged Homestead for closure, then scratched it and added MacDill for partial shutdown.

Last week, when the Closure Commission said both bases would be studied for closure, U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell, from Dade County, called any effort to close Homestead "unthinkable."

Fascell, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed out that the Air Force had announced only last month that Homestead would get new fighter units, and that the House had okayed a $30-million appropriation for a new hospital at Homestead last week.

Homestead and MacDill are both former Army Air Corps bases opened in the early 1940s.

MacDill, with 5,767 acres, has 8,912 jobs, of which 1,154 are held by civilians. Homestead, with 3,345 acres, employs 8,721, including 2,187 civilians.

In 1985 Homestead expanded from a fighter training wing to an operational wing. It is home to the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, with about 48 F-16s, as well as the 301st Air Rescue Squadron and a reserve fighter training wing. The South Florida installation also houses the U.S. Customs Miami office and a number of Black Hawk helicopters and Cessna and Citation aircraft used in drug interdiction efforts off Florida's coast.

MacDill's host unit is the 56th Tactical Training Wing, composed of about 100 F-16s. High-profile units at MacDill include U.S. Central Command, responsible for military planning in the Mideast; U.S. Special Operations Command, responsible for special forces such as the Green Berets; and the Joint Communications Support Element, a specialized, rapidly deployable unit under control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Rogers says it is more logical to move Homestead's functions to MacDill than vice-versa.

As in Operation Just Cause in Panama, Rogers says, Special Operations Command probably will be deployed to Central or South America "anytime there's a heightened military concern down there or a danger to American citizens."

But to relocate massive communications and intelligence equipment used by Special Operations and Central Command, he adds, would be "extremely costly."

MacDill, formerly home of two bomber wings, and later two fighter wings, has the capacity to handle more F-16s, Rogers says.

The general says MacDill's aircraft hangars are large, in excellent condition and, with aircraft ramps in place, are capable of handling either small fighters or large cargo planes. He says the base's 10,000-foot runway and extension can handle any military aircraft now in use or on the Pentagon drawing board into the 21st century.

If it came to a choice of one base or another, "It would be a tragedy to ignore the very substantial group of retirees who use the base" for medical care, shopping and recreation, Rogers said.

There, MacDill gets the nod. Homestead counts about 21,000 military retirees living in Dade County who regularly use the base hospital and base stores. MacDill officials estimate that 100,000 to 250,000 retirees and their dependents use the facilities on the Tampa base.