Proposed shutdown of submarine base scrutinized

By Dave Montgomery: Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the nation’s base-closing review commission on Tuesday questioned the Navy’s proposed closure of the New London Submarine Base, suggesting that the massive transfer of personnel and resources to the Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia could overwhelm the southern installation.

The proposed shutdown of the Connecticut submarine base is one of the largest and most controversial of nearly 180 closures in a 2005 Pentagon base restructuring, which is undergoing scrutiny by the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Top Navy officials, testifying before the commission, defended their recommendation to shut the New England base.

Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph Lieberman, held a news conference outside the hearing room to assail the proposal as a threat to national security.

“You’re going to close this submarine base forever — no matter what threats this nation faces,” Lieberman said.

Submarines and personnel from New London would be transferred to the Kings Bay submarine base and the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. But Anthony Principi, the commission’s chairman, warned that communities near Kings Bay have “limited infrastructure” and may be ill-prepared to absorb the influx.

More than 3,200 personnel would move from New London to Kings Bay, resulting in a projected 21 percent employment increase in St. Marys, a nearby community adjacent to the base, Principi said.

Navy Secretary Gordon England, who’s in line to become deputy defense secretary, said the Navy had carefully analyzed the region and felt confident that Kings Bay communities had adequate housing, schools, job opportunities and other resources to handle the transfer.

“In all of our moves,” he said, “we looked at both ends of this.”

Dodd disputed the Navy’s assertion that the Connecticut base was less important militarily than the submarine bases in Virginia and Georgia. He also asserted that the environmental cleanup at the vacated New England base would be enormous, saying that Navy officials who calculated the cost at $29 million were “living in Disneyland.”

Commissioners have scheduled four days of hearings through Thursday to question military leaders about the proposals as they embark on a four-month review of the Pentagon plan. The commission will then draft a final base-restructuring plan for the president and Congress.

England and Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, said the Navy wants to close nine major installations and 46 smaller installations as the Navy shrinks the size of its fleet and moves toward lighter and more efficient ships. The service is also restructuring eight other installations.

The Navy already has cut its fleet of attack submarines in half and concluded that it can no longer justify three submarine bases, Clark said. There are currently about 50 attack submarines, he said, and the Navy plans to reduce the number further to no more than 41.

Navy officials concluded that their best option was to close the New London base, which they said would produce a net savings of $1.58 billion over the next 20 years. There would be a one-time cost of $680 million for the transfer.

Other bases the Pentagon wants to close include Naval Station Ingleside near Corpus Christi, Texas; the Naval Air Station at Atlanta; and the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base at Willow Grove, Pa.

Gen. Michael Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, which is part of the Navy, also revealed that the Marine Corps hierarchy initially recommended closing the historic San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot, but concluded that it would cost too much to shut it down. The base is adjacent to San Diego’s airport and faces encroachment by urban growth.

England told commissioners that Navy leaders also seriously considered closing the Navy’s post-graduate school in Monterey, Calif., but he overruled the idea.