Outgoing Navy secretary still urging a base-closing round

An aerial view of attack submarines USS Virginia, bottom, and USS Connecticut at the Groton submarine base in 2007.

U.S. Navy / John Narewski

An aerial view of attack submarines USS Virginia, bottom, and USS Connecticut at the Groton submarine base in 2007.

Washington — Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said submarines have become more important to the national defense and the Navy has less excess capacity than the other armed services, but he also said all Navy facilities would be on the table, even sub bases, if there is a new base-closing round.

“It’s very clear (the Defense Department) as a whole has excess capacity, you need something to shrink that,” said Mabus in an interview with the Connecticut Mirror. “I’m sure we’d have something (on the base-closure list), but I don’t know what that would be.”

Once hot in military communities like Groton, the base-closing issue has subsided because of a years-long standoff between the Pentagon and Congress. But attempts to hold another base-shuttering round are expected to continue, even as President Obama leaves office and a new president takes his place.

The Pentagon, projecting escalating costs for national defense because of the price and sophistication of weapon systems, the rise of new threats like cybersecurity attacks and growing retiree expenses, is anxious to cut costs wherever it can. For these reasons, Mabus supports another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round.

He said all Navy facilities, including sub bases like the one in New London, would be scrutinized in a new BRAC round, but he indicated the impact on the Navy and Marine Corps would be less severe than on the Army or Air Force.

“We have far less excess capacity; the Navy and the Marine Corps have less excess capacity than anybody else,” Mabus said.

He also said the importance of submarines has grown in U.S. defense strategy.

“The role of submarines, the importance of submarine warfare is rising, and it’s recognized not just by us but just about everybody,” Mabus said. “The Russians and Chinese are the most visible, but there are not many seagoing countries that don’t have submarines.”

One other indication of the increased importance of submarines to the Navy is the appointment of the last two chiefs of naval operations, Jonathan Greenert and John M. Richardson. Both have been submariners, Mabus said.

“From the Secretary of Defense’s visit to the base in May to the addition of the Undersea Warfare Development Center and a flag officer being stationed in Groton, it’s clear that the U.S. Navy recognizes what a vital strategic asset the New London Submarine base continues to be,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, who represents the sub base in Congress and has been a staunch opponent of another BRAC round.

The base, located in Groton, began as a naval installation in 1872, became a submarine base in 1916 and a sub training and undersea warfare research center after World War I. Electric Boat began building submarines in 1934, helping to establish Groton as a world submarine center.

Despite it’s history, the base has been targeted in previous base-closing rounds.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus meets with sailors and shipyard employees at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton after a pre-commissioning tour of the Virginia-class attack submarine Illinois in 2014.

U.S. Navy / Armando Gonzales

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus meets with sailors and shipyard employees at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton after a pre-commissioning tour of the Virginia-class attack submarine Illinois in 2014.

Every year, the Pentagon asks Congress for a new round of base closings, but those requests have been been mostly greeted with hostility on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers insert language in defense bills banning a new BRAC every year, including this one.

In spring, the Pentagon sent a report to Congress that said the military’s current network of installations has about 22 percent more capacity than is needed. It found that the Army has 33 percent excess capacity, the Air Force has 32 percent excess capacity and the Navy and Marine Corps are over by 7 percent.

“One of the reasons is, the Navy, long before I got here, took BRAC very seriously …in the first three rounds,” Mabus said of the Navy’s lower percentage of excess capacity.

In the last base-closing round, conducted in 2004-2005, the Pentagon put Naval Submarine Base New London on the list of closures.

It suggested moving the Groton base’s missions to Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia.

“The existing berthing capacity at surface/subsurface installations exceeds the capacity required to support the Force Structure Plan,” the DOD said. “The closure of Submarine Base New London materially contributes to the maximum reduction of excess capacity while increasing the average military value of the remaining bases in this functional area. Sufficient capacity and fleet dispersal is maintained with the East Coast submarine fleet homeports of Naval Station Norfolk and Submarine Base Kings Bay, without affecting operational capability.”

‘You Actually Have to Close Things’

The base was pulled off the hit list by the independent base closing commissioners at the last minute. Some say it was the lobbying clout of Connecticut’s congressional delegation that did the trick. Others say the continuing conflict in Iraq was responsible.

The state, local community and base supporters had argued that closing the base would hurt the U.S. military strategic presence in the Atlantic and disrupt synergies among the submarine school and submarine squadron at the base, Electric Boat and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in nearby Newport, R.I.

In any case, the force structure plan and the Pentagon’s focus has shifted since 2005. The Navy has doubled the number of ships assigned to overseas homeports since 2006 and put submarines near the center of national defense strategy.

Mabus has set a Navy goal of 308 battle force ships, consisting of aircraft carriers, submarines, surface combatants, amphibious ships, combat logistics ships, and support ships. That plan includes an increase of 10 Virginia-class attack submarines built by Electric Boat. The fleet today numbers 273 ships and subs.

“When I got here the fleet was declining, declining precipitously,” said Mabus, who took the reins of the Navy in 2009.

Also, since the last round of base closings, the need to replace aging Ohio-class nuclear ballistic submarines with a new class of boat has increased.

The Navy has given Electric Boat the lead in building the new class, which Mabus disclosed will be called the “Columbia class.”

Those subs may join other ballistic-missile boats at Kings Bay, but there also will be an increase in the construction of Virginia-class attack submarines that are docked at Naval Submarine Base New London.

“As the ranking member of the seapower subcommittee (of the House Armed Services Committee,) I can tell you that nearly every Navy official who has appeared before our committee this year has made it clear that we need additional submarine capability – not less,” Courtney said.

A Virginia-class attack submarine

General Dynamics Electric Boat

A Virginia-class attack submarine

Robert Ross, executive director of the Connecticut Office of Military Affairs, said Naval Submarine Base New London has experienced big changes since the last BRAC round.

“I think the base is in a better position today than it was in 2005,” he said. One reason is that the state legislature authorized selling $40 million in bonds in 2007, Ross said.

Since then, about $14 million in bonding has been used to shore up operations on the base. Ross said the money has been used to demolish and replace 12 “archaic” buildings, to help establish a new training facility and for “encroachment mitigation,” to purchase land north and south of the base so the facility can grow.

“We’ve addressed a lot of problems,” Ross said.

But the Pentagon will continue to seek to cut excess capacity, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-profit that seeks to cut federal spending.

“I think the consistent pressure from the DOD and the White House will yield another BRAC round,” said Ellis.

No matter who wins the White House, he said, the next Secretary of Defense should use his “honeymoon” period to press for closures, Ellis said.

He also said he hoped the next BRAC round would not be like the one in 2005, which resulted in more realignments than closures and saved the DOD less money that it had sought.

“They took the easy way out,” Ellis said. “That allowed for lawmakers to say there were no savings to be found.”

Mabus also said the next round should focus on real shutdowns.

“The last BRAC round was in 2004, and the first several years I was here, I was still writing checks for that,” Mabus said. “If you are going to do something like this, you have to be more the ‘C’ than just the ‘R.’  If you just realign, it’s going to take a long time to save money…you actually have to close things.”

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