Lawmakers band together vs. BRAC

The New England congressional delegations will be putting up an intense fight today to save their military bases from the Pentagon’s chopping block.

At the core of their arguments will be the strategic value of several naval bases, whose closing or realignment could prompt changes in the defense strategies of the North Atlantic.

Lawmakers from Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are presenting their cases today in Boston in front of the independent Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.

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Anthony Principi, Chairman of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Comm.

New England would be hit particularly hard in this round of closures, standing to lose more than 14,000 defense jobs. Lawmakers said they are using the regional hearing as their best chance to prove that the Pentagon has underestimated and misrepresented the military value of the installations slated for closing.

The hearing’s host state, Massachusetts, which would take a gentle blow in this round, is planning to fight for Otis Air National Guard base and trying to prove its homeland security value, but the focus will be on Maine and Connecticut. Maine is slated to lose the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, with nuclear submarine repair and refueling work going to Norfolk, Va., while the Brunswick Naval Air Station would lose all its patrol aircraft to Jacksonville, Fla. Also, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service office in Limestone is targeted for closing.

In Connecticut, the New London submarine base in Groton is slated to shutter, moving the submarine fleet to Norfolk and Kings Bay, Ga. The closure would affect more than 8,000 military and civilian jobs in the region.

New Hampshire is working with Maine trying to save Portsmouth because 40 percent of the employees at the yard come from the Granite State. Rhode Island will also be represented at the hearing, trying to show the impact that the closure of the New London sub base would have across state lines.

The regional hearing in Boston comes in the wake of a letter the independent BRAC Commission sent to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asking for clarifications to several decisions. Among the commission’s questions is why the Naval Shipyard Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was not slated for closing instead of Portsmouth, which according to Navy documents is the more efficient of the two. The commission also is asking for the considerations given to the realignment of New Brunswick versus full closure.

The letter “shows that the BRAC Commission is doing their job, that they are going to look at the facts independently,” Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) told The Hill. “I think this is a good sign, but I do not think we can read too much into it.” He said the commission’s move shows that it is willing to “take a hard look” at the recommendations.

“It is clear that by [sending] the letter, the commission staff has clear reservations about shipbuilding, rehaul and repair,” said Robert Gillcash, a senior adviser at McKenna Long & Aldridge who has worked through several rounds of BRAC.

Lawmakers are going to try to prove the Department of Defense (DoD) criteria wrong at the hearing today. “A number of us from New Hampshire and Maine will be making the case based solely on the DoD criteria,” Bradley said. These factors include military value, surge capacity, irreplaceable assets and the military’s cost estimates. “We are going to prove how we believe that the criteria were deviated from, virtually all of the criteria,” Bradley said.

To make a compelling case, the states will have to present the commission with information that “really causes them to do more investigations on the strategic value of naval presence in the North Atlantic” and with facts that show there are going to be reductions in operations or support, explained Gillcash.

“Groton and Portsmouth have a lot going for them in terms of being reviewed,” Gillcash said. “It is going to be a difficult question of whether the commissioners are willing to accept the DoD position to abdicate [the] naval presence of the North Atlantic.”

Portsmouth supporters said the Navy did not take into account the efficiencies of the shipyard, which has been known to return submarines to the Navy ahead of schedule and under budget.

The closing of Portsmouth has been 40 years in the making, a congressional staff member said, quoting news clippings dating back to the 1960s that mentioned the potential closing of the shipyard.

Connecticut, meanwhile, is going to try to prove the military value of New London, attributable in part to its symbiotic relationship with General Dynamics’ Electric Boat division, concentrating the nation’s undersea-warfare expertise in the Groton area, according to supporters.

“It is an incredible nexus and incubator for the Navy,” Gillcash said.

Connecticut is slated to lose even more jobs than Maine is in the base closures. The sub base has the support of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, as well as Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), chairman of the committee’s Projection Forces Subcommittee.