Navy base supporters: State in good position to face round of closures

Groton — Connecticut is in the best position in decades to face another round of base closures and consolidations when that inevitably happens, said the head of the state's Office of Military Affairs.

"The timing now is pretty good," said Bob Ross, whose office was created in 2007 to defend the Naval Submarine Base in Groton against future closure or downsizing. The base was slated for closure during BRAC rounds in 1993 and 2005, but was saved both times.

Ross pointed to state investments in base infrastructure and the demolition of old or unused buildings on the installation. He also noted the increased importance of submarines to national security, the "centerpiece of fleet operations in both strategic and tactical mission areas." That's also proved by the ramp-up in submarine construction, he said.

In recent years, Congress has rejected requests from the Pentagon to identify inefficiencies and get rid of excess capacity. The latest proposal comes from U.S. Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and it significantly differs from past requests.

The Pentagon is backing the senators' proposal, which is part of an annual defense policy bill that the Senate is working through. The bill sets limits for defense spending. Once passed, the Senate's version will have to be merged with the House's version, passed earlier this summer, and any differences will have to be reconciled.

Still, the chances of Reed and McCain's proposal passing the full Congress may be slim. Connecticut's two senators oppose it. Federal lawmakers see military installations as big economic drivers in their districts. The sub base, for example, generates more than $5 billion in annual economic impact to the state and more than 30,000 jobs, according to Ross' office.

The senators' proposal would implement measures to prevent the cost overruns that resulted from the last BRAC round in 2005. The process was estimated to cost $21 billion but ended up exceeding that estimate by 67 percent.

"That has left a bad taste in everyone's mouth," Ross said.

The total cost of the next BRAC round could not exceed $5 billion and any closures or realignments would have be executed within 10 years, under the newest proposal. Each recommendation for closure or consolidation would have to result in a return on investment or break even within seven years.

"As we painfully witnessed the last time a BRAC process was undertaken, the Pentagon's calculations were way off, causing military families in New London a lot of unnecessary heartache. Until the military clearly articulates the need for cost savings to be achieved by a base closure process, I will not support another BRAC," U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in a statement said that "BRAC is long on unrealized returns and short on increased military readiness. As a Senator representing one of the last remaining military bases in New England, I am deeply concerned with the harm to civil-military relations caused by closing military bases in our region." He added that he shares McCain's and Reed's goal "of capitalizing on future savings where they may exist."

Reed and McCain also are proposing to do away with the independent BRAC commission, created by Congress in an effort to remove politics from the process. Instead, the Pentagon would come up with a list of recommendations, which would be reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, and then taken up by Congress.

That's a concern for Ross, who pointed out that the case to save the sub base was made to a nine-member commission in both 1993 and 2005. If the 535-member Congress had to take up the recommendations, either in whole or in part, and make decisions about what to close or leave open, "that could be a pretty unwieldy process," Ross said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, agrees.

"It's hard to see a dispassionate, neutral outcome because that's just the nature of Congress, that other political factors affect the way legislation and budgets turn out," Courtney said. "Looking back at '93 and '05, the commission was the court of last resort that avoided the near-death experience."

j.bergman@theday.com

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