Pentagon and Congress square off over base closings

Washington — The Pentagon warned a congressional panel Thursday that if a hostile Congress fails to approve a new Base Closing and Realignment Commission, it would act on its own to close bases.

“If Congress does not authorize additional BRAC rounds, the department will be forced to use its authority to begin to close and realign bases,” said Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of defense.

Robyn said that if the Pentagon is forced “to operate outside the BRAC process, it is severely constrained in what it can do to help local communities.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, whose district is home to the submarine base in Groton, and other lawmakers  on the House Armed Services Committee questioned the reason for a new Base Closing and Realignment Commission, saying it’s not clear the last one in 2005 saved any money.

Courtney asked Robyn why the Pentagon has not disclosed how much a new round of base closings would save or cost.

“You are already moving, this train is moving… and you haven’t given us a single number,” Courtney said.

He also chided the military witnesses at the hearing for failing to provide Congress with the language for legislation that would establish a new BRAC.

Robyn said it would be ready March 17 so a new base closing round can occur next year, when neither Congress nor the president is up for election.

She also said, “You never know how much the cost and savings will be from a BRAC until you undertake it.”

Connecticut lawmakers have pushed back against the idea of closings because when the last base hit list was drawn up in 2005, the Naval Submarine Base New London was on it. The base won a reprieve after Connecticut officials made a case for the base, but it may not be so lucky next time.

But the Pentagon is desperate to shrink the military budget. That’s why Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called for a two more rounds of closings, one next year and one in 2015.

But Connecticut lawmakers, including Courtney, have called the prospect of another base closing round “dead on arrival.” Committee members did not push Robyn on the Pentagon’s ability to unilaterally close bases in the U.S.

Other lawmakers also blasted the Pentagon’s plan.

“The more I hear today the more disconcerting all this is and the more concerns I have and the more I wonder if …what’s happening here is an attempt at muddling through, ” said Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa.

The Pentagon however, is arguing from a position of strength. The military budget, at more than $610 billion this year, has been bloated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is a target of congressional budget cutters, especially Democrats who want to shield social programs from the ax.

The end of the Iraq war, the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and Pentagon plans shrink the Army by 80,000 soldiers and trim other military branches means there’s a need for fewer military bases in the United States and overseas.

“The cuts in force structure must be accompanied by cuts in facilities…including military bases,” Robyn said.

She said the Defense Department already has about 20 percent excess infrastructure with the current force structure.

The Pentagon also plans to cut weapons and programs, some of which are produced in Connecticut.

In another effort to cut costs, Panetta wants to delay from 2014 to 2018 the construction of one of the two new Virginia-class submarines to be built in Groton by Electric Boat.

He also wants to reduce the numbers of Joint Strike Fighters purchased by the Pentagon. The planes’ engines are built by Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut.

There are also plans to eliminate the C-27, a medium-sized transport plane that was slated to be flown by the Connecticut Air National Guard.