Washington — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s vision for a “smaller, leaner” military could put the Naval Submarine Base New London on the chopping block and trim billions of dollars from Connecticut’s defense industry.
Panetta on Thursday said the Pentagon will absorb $487 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years by shrinking ground forces and cutting back and delaying major weapons systems, including submarines and a jet fighter with engines made in Connecticut.
Key members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation said Panetta’s call for a new round of base closures would be dead on arrival in Congress, but the Defense Secretary’s proposals for a leaner Pentagon budget in the coming fiscal year were far broader than a politically uncertain pitch to shed military bases.
Panetta said the Army would shrink by 80,000 soldiers, from 570,000 today to 490,000 by 2017, and the Marine Corps would drop from today’s 202,000 to 182,000.
In Connecticut, it was his forecast for a slowdown in the production of submarines and jet fighters that will raise alarms in an election year.
He said there will be a two-year delay in a ballistic missile submarine that would be built by Electric Boat in Groton, but EB’s spokesman, Robert Hamilton, said, “We don’t want to comment on the budget at this stage.”
Congress must approve the administration’s defense budget and is likely to change it.
Panetta also said one of the two new Virginia-class submarines that would also be built by Electric Boat would be delayed from 2014 to 2018.
But the biggest impact to Connecticut’s defense industry would be the proposed cuts to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose engine is built by Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut.
Panetta also said that the President Obama will ask Congress for another round of base closings.
“We cannot afford to sustain infrastructure that is excess to our needs in this budget environment,” Panetta said.
The Naval Submarine Base New London, which actually is across the Thames River in Groton, was recommended for closure by the last Base Closure and Realignment Commission in 2005. But lobbying by members of the Connecticut congressional delegation helped save the base.
Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, quickly released a joint statement in strong opposition to another BRAC. They serve on the Senate and House armed services committees.
“There is sweeping bipartisan opposition to another round of BRAC at this time. Given that the process requires congressional approval just to get off the ground, the proposal is dead on arrival,” the joint statement said.
The lawmakers may be right, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.
“It’s really unlikely that Congress would vote on a base closing process in this election year,” Thompson said.
But the Pentagon is required by law to cut its budget, and there may be more pressure to vote for a BRAC next year, Thompson said.
Thompson also said the Pentagon’s cuts to weapons systems, if enacted “would have a dramatic impact on Pratt &Whitney that could result in layoffs.”
Pratt & Whitney did not immediately return calls for comment.
Blumenthal said he is “troubled” by the Pentagon’s proposal to delay construction of the submarines, but he hoped purchases from other countries of the F-35 fighter would prevent layoffs at Pratt & Whitney.
“I think this plane will be ordered by our allies,” he said.
Former Connecticut Rep. Rob Simmons, who fought against the closure of the submarine base in Groton, is a sharp critic of the Pentagon’s new budget proposal. “I am very concerned that this administration will do damage to our nationals security,” he said.
Panetta visited the submarine base and nearby Electric Boat shipyard in November, touring the USS Mississippi, a Virginia-class attack sub under construction. At the time, according to the Armed Forces Press Service, he talked about the importance of Groton and showed no appetite for base closures.
“It’s the home of our submarine force, it’s the original home of the Nautilus and it is, from my point of view, one of the very important elements of our national defense that you guys are doing,” Panetta said told the workers. “The work that you’re doing is absolutely essential to our ability to keep our country safe.”
Panetta, who was a California congressman when Fort Ord, Calif., closed, also talked about his desire to avoid another round of base closings, though he complimented the Connecticut delegation for its defense of the base in 2005.
“The reality is that your delegation has put up a good fight,” he said. “You’re talking to somebody that went through the BRAC process.”
Panetta told his audience in Groton he was aware that base closures hurt local economies.
“I went through the hell of having to figure out what do I do to try to protect the economy of my local community,” Panetta said. “Fortunately, we were able to do it. We located a campus there and it’s doing fine. But I wouldn’t wish going through BRAC on anybody.”