Military commanders almost never talk about the steps they take to protect their bases against a terrorist attack, but that is what several did in a highly unusual recent congressional hearing.

Commanders from across the United States spelled out their problems of their bases in extraordinary detail before a special House Armed Services Committee panel on terrorism late last week.

The testimony came as the General Accounting Office warned there were "significant weaknesses" and "numerous potential vulnerabilities" at U.S. military bases to a possible terrorist attack.

While the intelligence community does not believe any attack on a U.S. military base is imminent, the vulnerabilities are real.

Real Life Breaches

Three recent criminal cases underscore just how easy it is to penetrate a U.S. military facility — most of which co-exist in cities and other commercial areas, housing thousands of military personnel and their families with buildings and offices, schools, hospitals and weapons storage depots:

In April, devices for making military IDs were stolen from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington D.C. Phony military identification cards could give terrorists and criminals wide access to all military bases.

In May, police arrested an individual for theft of C-4 plastic explosives, antipersonnel land mines, silenced machine guns and night vision devices from the Navy SEAL base in San Diego, Calif.

In August of last year, a man disguised as an Air Force officer penetrated Fort Meade, Maryland outside Washington D.C. He stole rifles, pistols and 12,000 rounds of ammunition.

While there may be no security measure that could ultimately thwart a determined terrorist, military bases have been under orders to beef up security ever since the bombings of the Air Force barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia 1996; the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and the Oct. 12, 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

Improvements include stronger fences and gates, improved construction standards so buildings can withstand blasts, and most importantly "standoff" or ensuring key areas are surrounded by empty restricted space so vehicle-borne bombs cannot be driven up to the edge of populated areas.

Let's Talk About Money

But commanders have now warned that lack of funds, and the need for more security personnel is leaving them caught short.

On the west coast, Maj. Gen. David Bice, commanding general of the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton base underscored the very practical problems of even beginning to protect a large military installation.

The 200-square mile Marine Corps base, straddles a major Southern California freeway, has 17 miles of open coastline and thousands of cars pass through its gates each day. One of the biggest problems says Bice: 3,800 buildings on the base dating from the 1940s and 1950s which fail to meet bomb protection standards. And, $7 million is urgently needed to upgrade 37 miles of fences.

"On any given day, approximately 100,000 people are on Camp Pendleton with approximately 62,000 cars entering the gates," he said.

On the east coast, the protection problem is similar at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia.

The base is the largest one in the Navy with 65,000 personnel, and homeport to 77 ships including five aircraft carriers and 140 aircraft. With 14 miles of fences, four gates open 24 hours a day and 14 large piers which share waterspace with commercial shipping, the base in extremely difficult to protect says commanding officer, Captain Joseph Bouchard.

How Much Is Not Enough?

He points out that the navy exchange, commissary, medical and dental clinic are outside the current perimeter fence, making them all a "soft target."

There are plans to upgrade gates, barriers and other facilities. On the waterfront piers there are new harbor barriers, signs saying "keep out" and security patrols.

But Bouchard acknowledges "they do not provide a high degree of assurance that we could stop a determined attacker." He adds that the harbor patrol force "is not sufficient to provide high assurance that an attacker would be detected, intercepted and halted before being able to complete an attack." For example, the perimeter of the restricted water area is just 135 yards from the piers at the nearest point.

A boat travelling at 10 knots — a reasonable speed for one carrying a large quantity of explosives — would need only 24 to 54 seconds to reach the side of a navy ship at the pier. At 30 knots a boat carrying a bomb could reach a naval warship in eight to 18 seconds.

Tough Neighborhood

Commanders at U.S. military bases know they are competing with even more vulnerable U.S. military bases overseas.

The head of the U.S. naval base in Bahrain operates the military facility consistently at the highest level of threat conditions anywhere. Because of the recent high levels of terrorist alert, Captain John Steele did not appear at the June 28 House Armed Services Committee hearing, but instead submitted a highly detailed written statement.

And some of those details have never been acknowledged before. Bahrain may be the most heavily fortified port in the world. Steele revealed that at the harborside where U.S. Navy ships dock there is an "anti-swimmer sonar," one of three such devices anywhere.

It uses computer technology to distinguish between man-made "swimmer" threats and fish. There are U.S. Navy fast patrol boats with sailors armed with belt-fed automatic weapons and concussion grenades. During a recent rise in threat concerns, all U.S. Navy ships in Bahrain were ordered out to sea.

The Bahrain security force is comprised of 290 sailors who provide gate and perimeter security. It is scheduled to double by the end of next year, directly as a result of post-Cole security requirements.

There is another specially trained group of 50 Marines who can react immediately in a crisis with mortars and small artillery. And there is also a little-known 50-man contingent of Nepalese Ghurkas, hired by the U.S. military to deal mostly with the contractor Asian workforce at the base.

The entire base has been configured to withstand a Khobar-like vehicle bomb. Under this standard, buildings are designed to withstand a 20,000 pound bomb. The main perimeter wall of the base is engineered to withstand a 10-ton truck traveling at 60 miles per hour. The headquarters building, which houses the offices of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet is monitored around the clock with motion detectors.