Connecticut Community Responds to Base Closing

A Senate committee demands that the Pentagon release information explaining its rationale for the proposed closing of dozens of military bases across the country. We look at how one Connecticut community is responding to the Pentagon's long-term base-closure strategy.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

On to another issue facing the military. A Senate committee is demanding information from the Pentagon about base closures. It wants to know what's behind the defense Department's plan to shut down 33 major US military bases. The committee's move shows just how sensitive the base closing process is. NPR's Anthony Brooks has the story of how one Connecticut community is responding.

ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:

For most of the last century, Groton, Connecticut, has been known for its Navy base and its submarines. Just ask Joe Quaratella, owner of the Nautilus Barber Shop, named for the Navy's first nuclear-powered attack sub which was built here and is now the centerpiece of a submarine museum in Groton.

Mr. JOE QUARATELLA (Owner, Nautilus Barber Shop): I grew up here all my life, and everything was submarines, submarines, submarines.

BROOKS: But submarines may soon become just a memory here now that the Pentagon plans to shut down the Naval Submarine Base New London, as the Groton base is called. On a recent morning, hundreds of people rallied with American flags and signs that said `Save our base'; among them, Linnea Lindstrom, who heads a local Chamber of Commerce, and says the shutdown would cost 8,500 jobs immediately and many times that in the years to come.

Ms. LINNEA LINDSTROM: If you just look behind you, and you see the Dolphin Liquor Mart and the Nautilus Barber Shop, the laundromat and Pop's Kitchen, every one of those businesses gets most of their money from military families and the military. We can't afford to see these people go out of business.

Representative ROB SIMMONS (Republican, Connecticut): We are the submarine capital of the world. We have always been the submarine capital of the world, and we want to remain the submarine capital of the world.

BROOKS: Republican Congressman Rob Simmons is among those fighting to save the base. He made his case after meeting in Groton with members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the so-called BRAC Commission, which has ultimate authority to amend the base closure list.

Rep. SIMMONS: Taking submarines out of Groton, Connecticut, is like taking automobiles out of Detroit. It's like taking the filibuster out of the Senate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Exactly.

Rep. SIMMONS: It doesn't make sense.

BROOKS: But it does to the Pentagon. Its plan to shut down 33 major bases is part of a broad strategy to save $50 billion over 10 years and to restructure a military that is still moving sluggishly into the post-Cold War era. So says Owen Cote of MIT's Security Studies Program.

Mr. OWEN COTE (Security Studies Program, MIT): If you look at the numbers of things we had during the Cold War, we had 600 ships, we had a hundred submarines, we had 18 Army divisions, we had so much larger force than we have now. That's what's driving the decision to close an attack submarine base.

BROOKS: From a high of a hundred subs, the Pentagon now says it will make do with just 40, so there are just too many bases. The subs at Groton would move to Georgia and Norfolk, Virginia, home to the Atlantic Fleet, and a newer base with more and cheaper space. The Pentagon's base closure list reflects, among other things, the nation's changing strategic posture, a shift away from the North and the East. MIT's Owen Cote says that's because attack subs are no longer needed to confront the former Soviet Union.

Mr. COTE: There was this concentration of assets there that was absolutely essential to a conflict that was centered on the North Atlantic, anti-submarine warfare. That was the main mission of the attack submarine force during the Cold War.

BROOKS: The US defensive posture is shifting away from the Atlantic and toward the Persian Gulf and the Pacific, China in particular. That's why the Pentagon wants to bring troops home from Europe, for example, and why submarine bases on the West Coast will not be closed. So says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): China and the Persian Gulf both place a slightly greater premium on Pacific ports than they do on Atlantic ports, which means that if you're sailing from Connecticut to try to get to a strategically important place, you have to go all the way around Africa.

BROOKS: Connecticut politicians know that rebutting these arguments is the only way to save their base. While the BRAC commissioners will consider the economic consequences of base closure, military value weighs much more heavily. That's why Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons points out the Groton base is home to the Navy Submarine School, and that it's right next to Electric Boat, which designs and builds the subs, which Simmons says add up to a valuable concentration of assets in Groton.

Rep. SIMMONS: Why tear it apart and scatter the pieces around the country where they don't fit so that we can no longer respond to future threats in the subsurface domain? That is wrong for the national security. That's what we're trying to avoid.

BROOKS: Connecticut politicians have little time to make their case before the BRAC Commission presents its recommendations to President Bush in early September. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman says that's why they're frustrated that the Pentagon has been so slow to release information that explains precisely why it wants to close Groton.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): The Pentagon is like a prosecuting attorney arguing for a death sentence. We're like lawyers trying to protect the accused. And yet the prosecutor, the Pentagon, won't share the information with us on the basis of which they're asking to terminate the life of Submarine Base New London.

BROOKS: Lieberman has authorized subpoenas to get that information from the Pentagon. Pentagon officials say much of it must be declassified first, but it will be released as soon as possible. Many in Groton hope it won't come too late to save their base. Anthony Brooks, NPR News.

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