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As Another Base-Closing Threat Looms, Groton is Ready


Dan Haar

12:58 PM EST, January 8, 2013

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The Pentagon is likely to seek another round of base closings in Obama's upcoming budget proposal and this time, unlike last year, it won't go away easily.

That's the assessment from Bob Ross, director of the state's Office of Military Affairs -- who's charged with leading the defense against defense cuts.

"It has to come," Ross said. "What we're focused on in Connecticut is how to prepare for that."

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is skeptical that Obama will spend scarce political capital in an already hostile U.S. House.

Either way, as the Pentagon prepares its budget for 2014, a Base Realignment and Closure commission is a hot topic. That alone is bad news for the submarine base in Groton, which spins off a nuclear-powered $4.5 billion-a-year in economic value for Connecticut.

But this time, unlike in the past, Connecticut is ready to defend its submarine base if a BRAC emerges.

At stake for Connecticut is the Navy base that's home to 15 nuclear submarines, worth a cool $4.5 billion a year to the state's economy when we add up the direct employees, firms that sell goods and services to the base and all the spillover effects.

Twice before, in 1993 and 2005, Groton has made its way onto a BRAC list of doomed bases, only to be saved by Connecticut's Congressional delegation. If it happens again, we'll go into battle with two senators who have little seniority.

On the other hand, we've laid the groundwork in all sorts of ways. The Pentagon has spent $150 million upgrading the Groton base, and Connecticut taxpayers have kicked in $11 million.

"We're the only state that has done that," Ross said.

Beyond money, Groton has been named the top-performing Navy base in the mid-Atlantic region. And, Ross said, "There was a time when we had friction between the navy and local communities, and we've turned that around."

Courtney points out that Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, the Navy's chief of operations, rose up through the submarine command with a stint in Groton. The admiral, on a recent visit, "was very effusive in his praise of Groton in terms of its military value," Courtney said including its virtual training center and its new, $30 million pier.

Since 2005, Courtney added, "submarines have moved up the food chain" in how they're viewed by the Washington establishment in military importance.

All in all, a decent picture. Add to that the underlying argument that Groton is part of what its defenders call a "three-legged stool" of submarine prowess -- the base, Electric Boat and the nearby Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I.

So we can sit comfortably while other states fret about their bases, right?

Nooooooo. The BRAC process is ugly from start to finish, which is why it exists in the first place. No one wants to be responsible for a base closing on his or her watch. And no one will predict the outcome.

"We never want to fight this battle again," Ross said.

The first line of defense is whether the BRAC process is even worth the time and money. The 2005 round ended up costing $35 billion, up from an estimate of $21 billion, and won't show savings until 2018, Courtney and Ross said.

A year ago, Defense secretary Leon Panetta pushed for a BRAC but didn't have it in his budget. "It got totally beaten into the ground," said Courtney, who sits on the readiness subcommittee of House Armed Services Committee.

Panetta, who is stepping down from the post, later said, "it's an important debate to have and, frankly, it's not going away."

That much is clear, regardless of whether it comes up in the next couple of months for a BRAC commission in 2014 which would lead to closings in 2016.

I wrote a column in 2010 saying the state may be smart to spend millions on a military base, but the Pentagon shouldn't accept state money because it sends us down the wrong path, Connecticut vs. Georgia in a bidding war the taxpayers can't afford. That said, the spending under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell did buy us an advantage — in a battle to keep the Groton base that will never end as long as the base is open.

"I'm a Red Sox fan," Courtney said. "I don't like to do the victory dance."