Washington — While Connecticut’s congressional delegation says another round of base closings is dead on arrival, supporters of the Navy’s submarine base in the Groton area already on the defensive.
“We’re preparing like crazy as if it were happening tomorrow,” New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said of another Base Closing and Realignment Commission, or BRAC.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wants two more rounds of base closings, in 2013 and 2015, to eliminate excess capacity as the military is streamlined.
But members of Congress, who would have to authorize another round of base closings, are strongly opposed to another BRAC because they want to save local facilities. Lawmakers also don’t want to spend the huge upfront costs of shuttering facilities as they’re try to find savings to shrink the budget deficit.
Congress’ opposition to another BRAC was encouraging to communities who depend on military facilities for jobs and revenue.
Yet Robert Ross, executive director of Connecticut’s Office of Military Affairs, is taking no chances.
To Ross, a retired naval commander, a new BRAC “is not a question of if, but when.”
He said nobody expected the Naval Submarine Base New London to be on the Pentagon’s hit list in the last BRAC, which occurred in 2005. But it was.
“We don’t want to be surprised again,” Ross said.
He thinks Congress may fend off another BRAC next year, but may not be able to in 2014.
After the Naval Submarine Base New London narrowly avoided being closed in 2005, the state created the Office of Military Affairs to watch out for it on a full-time basis.
The state also has a top Washington lobbying firm on retainer, Mercury/Clark & Weinstock. Since 2009, that firm has been paid more than $200,000 to look out for military interests in the state.
Connecticut has taken an even bigger step to protect the base, which generates $4.5 billion each year in revenue and is responsible for about 15,000 jobs on and off the base.
Through the sale of bonds, the state has raised $50 million to help modernize and improve the base.
About $11 million has already been spent on a new boiler for the facility and to buy up land north and south of the base. The land purchases are aimed at stopping “encroachment” of residential and commercial buildings that would prevent the base from expanding, something that could doom it in a base closing round.
“We’re in a good position this time around and we weren’t the last time,” Ross said.
Connecticut politicians have also mobilized for another BRAC.
A steady stream of state officials and federal lawmakers has lobbied Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and other Navy brass on the strengths of the submarine base in Groton — which include its proximity to submarine maker Electric Boat.
Gov. Dannel Malloy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are among those who’ve met with Mabus since Panetta made his announcement on base closings in January.
“Forging a relationship with the Navy secretary can only help us as we navigate the BRAC process in the years ahead,” Malloy said.
The Subase Coalition, a community group that fought to keep the Groton sub base open during the last base-closing round, has reconfigured itself and held a couple of planning sessions since the specter of another BRAC appeared in January.
“We’re not far enough down the track to take any action,” said Danny Hicks, a retired Navy captain who belongs to the coalition. “But we’re ready.”
Naval Submarine Base New London’s likely rivals in another BRAC are also taking protective actions.
Besides Connecticut’s facility, there are two other bases on the Atlantic that serve as homeports for submarines. They are Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia.
Supporters of the base in Norfolk also have a Washington lobbyist on call. In addition, the Virginia’s assembly 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.
In addition, a retired admiral heads a community group, the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Association, keeping an eye on what goes on in Washington.
Jack Hornbeck, a member of that group and president of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, said he isn’t too concerned about new base closings because the area has “benefitted both positively and negatively” by previous rounds. That is to say, the heavy concentration of military facilities in the area — home of the Atlantic Fleet and three Army bases — has both lost missions and gained them.
“But we’re not going to be complacent in any way, shape or form,” Hornbeck said.
Steve Crowell, the mayor of St. Marys, Ga., a neighbor to the Kings Bay base, said local communities are conducting a joint land use study with the naval facility to determine if there are encroachment issues.
Delegations from the area have also made their way to Washington to lobby Navy officials about Kings Bay.
Crowell said local base boosters “certainly have the same concerns” about the prospect of another BRAC that are held by supporters of the Groton sub base.
“But we haven’t gone into panic mode yet,” Crowell said.