Base-closing proposal 'dead on arrival'

President Barack Obama plans to ask Congress to authorize a round of base closings, the Defense Department announced Thursday, but members of the state's delegation say they won't approve it and many of their colleagues won't either.

The Naval Submarine Base in Groton narrowly escaped closure when it was targeted in the 2005 Defense Base Realignment and Closure process.

"There is sweeping bipartisan opposition to another round of BRAC at this time. Given that the process requires congressional approval just to get off the ground, the proposal is dead on arrival," U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman and Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, all Democrats, said in a joint statement Thursday.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey released a document at a press conference Thursday that explains major decisions for the fiscal 2013 budget. The document includes proposed changes to two key programs for the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton.

The Pentagon is recommending delaying the start of construction on a new class of ballistic-missile submarines, which EB is currently designing, from 2019 to 2021. EB and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, which together are building two Virginia-class submarines annually, would build one Virginia-class submarine in 2014 instead of two, and two submarines in 2018 instead of one. The total number ordered by the Navy would stay the same.

The Pentagon is looking to cut at least $450 billion in spending over 10 years. It said a BRAC is needed to achieve savings that can be "reinvested in higher priorities as soon as possible."

But Courtney called the proposal "puzzling" because the 2005 round was extremely costly and money would have to be added to the budget to implement any closures in a future round.

Blumenthal said a BRAC would be "hugely counterproductive" if the goal is to save money next year or the year after, since the savings, if any, wouldn't be achieved until years later. And it's unnecessary, he added, because U.S. bases can be closed abroad, starting in Europe.

"I think even if there were a BRAC process, it would not, and I stress absolutely would not, close the sub base at Groton," Blumenthal said in an interview.

Construction and demolition projects worth $100 million are currently in progress at the base, said Bob Ross, executive director of the state's Office of Military Affairs.

After the 2005 scare, Ross said, the state followed through on its vows to keep the base off future lists by investing in it - about $11 million so far - and establishing the OMA to track BRAC developments.

"We don't have to be reactive here,"Ross said. "We've got a strategic plan in place."

"We've done all the right things in the right order to make the base much more attractive than it was in 2005," Ross said. "It has much more military value."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement that although he understands the need to shrink government spending, the proposals involving the submarine base and other state programs "warrant careful scrutiny and discussion."

Electric Boat President John P. Casey told legislators earlier this month that he expects to hire several hundred people this year, and many more in the years ahead, to build the new class of ballistic-missile submarines to replace the Ohio-class boats.

Changes to the submarine programs would lead to layoffs at EB and less revenue, said Loren B. Thompson, the chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

"The administration's decisions on shipbuilding signal that some jobs are going to be lost at EB as it receives less money for sub work over the next several years," Thompson said. "The first thing that goes will be the long-lead funding for the second Virginia-class submarine in 2014. That money will disappear in 2013. And then there's the impact on the design and engineering teams associated with developing the Ohio replacement."

But, Thompson said, whatever cuts the administration may want still have to be approved by Congress. "This is not a done deal," he said.

EB spokesman Robert Hamilton said it is too early in the budget process to comment.

Courtney said he'd work to restore the second Virginia-class submarine in the 2014 plans to keep the program's positive momentum going. But both he and Blumenthal were encouraged because, although there could be some schedule changes, both submarine programs remained intact.

The budget document states that the department is committed to the procurement of a new ballistic-missile submarine. It also supports adding a module with missile tubes to the Virginia-class submarines to boost firepower.

EB has finished the initial concept work and program plan for the module. Some of the work on the module could offset any losses resulting from the two-year delay in the Ohio replacement program, Courtney said. "Submarines were still, I think, touted as an essential part of our strategy moving forward, and undersea dominance is still something Secretary Panetta strongly endorsed," he said.

"America needs this submarine program," Blumenthal said. "We're going to have these submarines, which will be the tip of the spear in our future strategy. And this program is full throttle ahead even if it's delayed at the edges, so to speak."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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