House approves military construction bill, but no money for Groton sub base

Naval Submarine Base New London

U.S. Navy

Naval Submarine Base New London

Washington — The House of Representatives approved a $71 billion military construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill Wednesday evening that has money for Connecticut’s Air National Guard but would fund no new projects at Naval Submarine Base New London.

The bill was approved, with the support of all members of the Connecticut House delegation, on a vote of 416 to 1 and is expected to be approved by the Senate. It’s a popular bill because it would fund important veterans’ programs, even if it doesn’t contain as much base construction money as some lawmakers would like.

Naval Submarine Base New London is one of the oldest military facilities in the nation. But Congress has not appropriated any military construction money for the base for several years.

“New London has been a sub base for a long time,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute. “As a consequence, its infrastructure is badly in need for renewal.”

If there’s a new base-closing round, “the condition of a base could be a factor,” Thompson said.

Naval Submarine Base New London had been on the hit list in two previous Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC) rounds. But lobbying by members of the Connecticut congressional delegation helped save it.

“We have had two near-death experiences,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who represents the sub base in Congress.

There are two other bases on the Atlantic that are home ports for submarines and could be rivals to the Groton base if there is another BRAC: Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia.

The military construction bill approved by the House contains nearly $40 million for a new operations and logistics center for Naval Station Norfolk. The Virginia base has also received millions of dollars in military construction money in the last several years.

In addition, Virginia’s legislature and the city of Virginia Beach appropriate $15 million every year to buy properties so their sub base has room to grow in a heavily populated area.

But Courtney said the recent lack of military construction money for the Groton sub base won’t have an impact on the base’s operations or its future.

“There is nothing this year, but there has been more than $100 million (in military construction money) since 2005,” Courtney said.

The last BRAC round was in 2005.

Some of the projects the Navy has funded at the sub base since 2005 include $46 million for a new pier, $9.3 million for new buildings at the base’s submarine learning center and $17.1 million for a ”submarine escape” center, a 37-foot-deep, 84,000-gallon tank used to train sailors in how to escape from a disabled nuclear submarine.

The base has also recently cut the ribbon on a $15 million commissary. The facility was not funded by Pentagon military construction money but from the Defense Commissary Agency, which sets a 5 percent surcharge on goods sold at the commissary to pay the costs of building and repairing the facilities.

Raising money through a bond program, the state of Connecticut has also spent $11 million on improvements to the base, and the sub base has received a $3 million grant from the Connecticut Department of Energy and  Environmental Protection for work on an electricity micro grid project.

Courtney said the Navy has additional projects planned for the sub base “in the pipeline.”

Federal budget restrictions have forced severe cuts in the Pentagon’s military construction budget in recent years.

“I don’t think there’s much construction money for anyone,” said Robert Ross, executive director of Connecticut’s Office of Military Affairs. “I don’t think Connecticut is being treated differently than anybody else.”

Last year, spending on military construction and family housing programs was $3.3 billion more than the $6.6 billion asked by the Pentagon and allocated by the House this year.

While there was no money for the sub base in this year’s military construction bill, the legislation includes $16 million for a C-130 fuel cell facility and a corrosion-control program for the Connecticut Air National Guard unit stationed at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks.

The president and the Pentagon want a new BRAC round, but the military construction bill contains a provision that bars the Defense Department from using any of its money for a base closing round.

Also Wednesday, a House Armed Forces Committee panel voted to include a provision in a defense authorization bill that would bar a new BRAC round.

Panel Chairman Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., said the bill “rejects the president’s request for an additional BRAC round and any other effort that seeks to lock in unwise force structure reductions during a time [of] accelerated transitions.”

Pentagon officials argue that there is a need to close and realign bases to eliminate an estimated 25 percent in excess infrastructure.

But Congress strongly opposes the move.

Yet Ross of the Connecticut’s Office of Military Affairs said a new round of base closings is inevitable.

“Eventually we know the nation has to do a BRAC,” he said.

But he, and other defenders of the Naval Submarine Base New London, are heartened that Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, recently said he doesn’t see a great need for the Navy to go through another round of base closures.

During a BRAC round, however, an independent panel makes the final decision on what bases to shutter and which to keep open.

The future of the Groton sub base received another boost this week, with the Navy signing a contract with Electric Boat and its partner, Newport News Shipbuilding, to build 10 Virginia Class submarines over the next five years. Naval Submarine Base New London is a home port for these attack subs.

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