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Defense budget includes two subs a year but base commissary funding threatened

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: theday.com

Published March 04. 2014 2:00PM   Updated March 05. 2014 1:46PM

In its fiscal 2015 budget request Tuesday, the Pentagon asked Congress for enough money to keep buying two submarines a year from Electric Boat in Groton.

“We have a district right now that is pretty special in the fabric of national defense priorities,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “There is so much change that this budget is proposing, if for one second people believed this is something we could do without, they would have cut submarines in the shipbuilding plan.”

But the Pentagon also unveiled plans that, if approved by Congress, could mean less funding for the commissary at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, and 450 to 500 fewer positions for the Connecticut National Guard. A proposed round of base closings also could jeopardize the future of the Groton base.

Many military families are especially worried about the proposal to reduce the $1.4 billion annual subsidy to military commissaries by $1 billion over three years. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the department is not shutting down commissaries, but some speculate the Defense Commissary Agency will be forced to close some stores or to increase prices.

A local Navy wife, Emma Lindbeck, said she spends about $200 a week on groceries for her husband and six kids at the base commissary.

“The government is not likely to give back what it takes away,” she said. “The things that we don’t fight for, that we allow to go away, definitely aren’t coming back. It’s not going to make a large impact on the budget, but it would make a large impact personally, and for other families.”

The Defense Commissary Agency estimates military members and their families save 30 percent by shopping at a commissary. The base will open a new $15 million, 57,000-square-foot commissary in April.

“Beyond the medical care, the commissary is the benefit I see on a day-to-day basis that has the most impact on us,” Lindbeck said.

Ed Shyloski, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers, stocks up at the commissary once a month. He said the commissary is a perk for officers but it has become a basic necessity for enlisted members and non-commissioned officers, whose salaries are lower. Shyloski questioned why entitlement programs are not reduced instead, since the government spends significantly more on those.

Paul Dillon, a retired Navy master chief who shops at the commissary on Sundays, said he wonders, considering cuts to benefits for service members and veterans, “How are we going to attract folks to come into the military?”

Courtney said the House Armed Services Committee will study Hagel’s proposal closely. Most of the committee members have military installations in their districts so they know how important commissaries are, he added.

Hagel also asked Congress to authorize a Base Realignment and Closure process in 2017, and said the department will continue to reduce its infrastructure in Europe, an action that does not need congressional approval. Congress has denied the department’s BRAC requests for the past two years.

Both Courtney and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have said the political will to approve a BRAC does not exist in Congress. The Groton base was nearly closed in the 2005 round.

The Pentagon’s budget will be cut by $75 billion in the next two years or more if sequestration continues in fiscal 2016. The 2015 base budget request provides $495.6 billion, a decrease from the $496 billion that was provided for 2014.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and 46 other governors sent a joint letter Friday to President Barack Obama to oppose reducing the Army National Guard from more than 350,000 nationwide to 335,000 by 2017. The state stands to lose 450 to 500 Connecticut National Guard positions, according to Malloy’s office.

Courtney said he questions why the Defense Department would scale back what is probably the most cost-effective force for responding rapidly while it simultaneously reduces the number of active-duty Army soldiers and Marines.

Blumenthal said the National Guard performs essential functions overseas and at home, in combat and in peacetime, and should not be cut.

“Overall there is no question that the military needs to be leaner and more agile, with an emphasis on special ops and weapons platforms like submarines and the Joint Strike Fighter,” Blumenthal said. “We will not be occupying other countries with mass land forces. The strategy makes sense. The details have to be reviewed.”

Despite the proposals that could hurt the district, Courtney said his colleagues view southeastern Connecticut as “a survivor” compared to their districts, because the Pentagon still wants to buy two attack submarines each year while it cuts or eliminates other weapons programs.

Electric Boat in Groton builds two Virginia-class submarines per year with its shipbuilding partner, Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. The budget proposes allocating $6.3 billion to pay for two submarines in 2015, to buy materials with long lead times for the 2016 submarines and to continue developing a module to boost firepower on the attack submarines. The budget also includes nearly $1.3 billion to continue the research and design work on a new class of ballistic-missile submarines, an Ohio-class replacement being designed by EB.

Connecticut’s 1st and 3rd districts did not fare nearly as well because the Pentagon wants to order fewer aircraft, Courtney said.

He compared this stage of the budget process to spring training in baseball. Now, he said, the subcommittees in Congress go to work and the real scrutiny begins.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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