The Base Realignment and Closure commission, moving quickly through its agenda on the first day of its final deliberations, voted to save the New London Submarine Base in Connecticut, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, the Red River Army Depot in Texas and a handful of other facilities.
In addition, the commission voted to completely close Naval Air Station New Brunswick in Maine, a base that the Pentagon had only slated for a reduction in personnel.
In disagreeing with the Pentagon, the commission found that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “substantially deviated” from criteria for base closures that is spelled out in law and in Defense Department policy, according to the commission’s legal language. The criteria say closure decisions must be made mainly on the basis of national defense needs and the potential for cost savings to tax payers.
Some commissioners expressed sharp disagreements with the Pentagon’s assessment of the value of the spared bases, and cited the commission’s own analysis to back up their decisions.
“The commission went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the soundness, correctness and integrity of the base realignment and closure process and to fulfill our commitment to transparency, honesty and fairness for all,” said Commission Chairman Anthony Principi, former secretary of veterans affairs under President George W. Bush.
Principi said the commission’s task was extremely difficult because the Pentagon had submitted double the number of recommendations that were handed down in previous base closing rounds.
Local citizens and politicians from around the country have lobbied the commission for months in attempts to spare local bases from the Pentagon’s chopping block.
Intense lobbying by New England officials, former Naval officers including admirals, and even former President Carter appeared to convince the commission that the New London Submarine Base in Groton, Conn. should remain open. Carter served aboard submarines as a U.S. Navy officer.
Commissioners said that New London had become the premiere submarine base in the world and served as a “center of excellence” for submarine-related activities.
“If we close New London down, we will never get it back,” said Principi. “I think it would be a tragic mistake, a tragic loss for this nation.”
The vote was 7-1 to keep the base open. The lone dissenting vote on the commission was former Utah Republican Rep. James Hansen, who cited the substantial cost savings of closing the base.
Lawmakers and local officials who had fought the bases closure were ebullient after the vote.
“Yahoo!” Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., told the Hartford Courant. “Submarine base New London lives, and I think that it will live forever.”
Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell told the Courant that she was in tears when the vote came down.
When voting to save the Red River Depot in Texas, commissioners cited an ongoing need for the Humvee vehicle refurbishing and repair services done at the facility. The Humvee is one of the primary vehicles used by troops in Iraq.
“I think it would be a mistake to take away that capacity,” said Commissioner Lloyd “Fig” Newton, a retired Air Force general.
After the vote on the Red River Depot, local and state officials expressed relief.
“Nothing feels so good as being shot at and missed,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who led the battle to save the repair depot, which employs thousands of people in northeast Texas.
Efforts to save most other bases were unsuccessful. On average, previous BRAC commissions have approved some 85 percent of original Defense Department recommendations. The commission sided with the Pentagon on most Army and Navy facilities in Wednesday’s voting.
The commission agreed with the Pentagon that around 400 Army Reserve and National Guard facilities around the country should be closed and consolidated into regional centers.
Two states, Pennsylvania and Illinois, are currently suing the Department of Defense on its recommendation to close Air National Guard facilities, which the states say the Pentagon has no right to do without the consent of state governors. The cases are currently pending. The commission will tackle the thorny issue of the air guard bases when it reviews Air Force recommendations in an upcoming session.
In further commission business Wednesday, the panel voted to add some facilities to the closure list unless the Defense Department or state and local governments meet certain building, safety and redevelopment requirements.
On this conditional basis, Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, the Marine Broadway complex in California and Naval Support Activity New Orleans were slated for potential closure.
Principi said the commission realized base closures approved Wednesday would have detrimental social and economic effects in many communities.
“We know that the decisions we reach will have a profound impact on the communities hosting our military installations, and more importantly, on the people who bring those communities to life,” he said.
The commission voted on Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and joint service facilities on Wednesday. It has until Saturday to further review joint services facilities before taking up Air Force bases and concluding any remaining commission business. The panel must submit its recommendations to the president by Sep. 8.