If Bases Are not Needed, Some Fear Fleet Is Next
From: HOUSEHOLDER [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Monday, August 22, 2005 8:34 AM
Subject: USSVI: From the NY Times
August 22, 2005
If Bases Aren't Needed, Some Fear Fleet Is Next
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
GROTON, Conn., Aug. 19 - In a report to Congress in March 2004, the Navy projected that it would need a fleet of 55 nuclear-powered attack submarines in 2024. A year later, the Navy lowered the projection to 45. By May, Admiral Vern Clark, who was then the chief of naval operations, said he wanted 41. Others now talk of a fleet in the 30's.
It has been 16 years since the Berlin Wall fell, 14 since the Soviet Union dissolved and about a decade since the Navy began rapidly reducing its number of underwater weapons, which helped win the cold war by keeping Soviet submarines in check and the seas open.
Now, with terrorists the targets of the armed forces and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld talking of "transformation" in the military, the future is in doubt for the submarine port in Groton, which has been set among old oaks on the east bank of the Thames River for nearly 90 years.
In the coming week, an independent federal commission is expected to vote on whether President Bush should adopt a Pentagon plan to close Groton and move its 18 attack submarines to bases in Georgia and Virginia. The closing of Groton would save $1.6 billion over 20 years, and has been proposed as part of a larger plan to close 33 major bases in a nationwide realignment that would save $48.8 billion in the same time frame, according to the Pentagon.
The panel, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, has expressed skepticism about the Pentagon's projected savings from closing Groton, and the United States General Accounting Office has said that the Pentagon overstated by $400 million the savings that could result from eliminating personnel and undertaking other reductions there.
But the fight over closing the submarine base, coming at a time when the fleet is shrinking, has underscored a broader debate within the Navy, at the Pentagon and among defense analysts: How many submarines - known as "legacy weapons" for their historic role in defense - are essential in the post-cold-war, terrorism-focused, budget-restricted military?
"No one really seems to have an answer to that," said Christopher Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, a research group in Washington.
The question is complicated by uncertainty over the shape of future threats, from terrorism to tension with China over Taiwan, and also by parochial interests in the military and genuine faith in the kinds of weapons that helped fight wars for a century.
"Because today the threat du jour is terrorists, people are running around making strategic decisions and plans based on asymmetrical warfare and terrorists," said John Markowicz, a 1965 Naval Academy graduate who leads a state-financed coalition fighting to save Groton.
"I would remind you that it was not that long ago that major powers with large navies were the threat du jour," Mr. Markowicz said. "Having the flexibility to be able to adapt to threats of the future that we may not be able to anticipate today ought to be the more comprehensive approach."
Connecticut officials, fearing the loss of 8,500 jobs at the base and 22,000 more associated with it, have argued that closing the base would cost the Pentagon about $640 million instead of saving $1.6 billion. They say the Pentagon claimed significant savings from personnel cuts that would not be made, understated the environmental cleanup necessary and miscalculated costs of recreating buildings and piers elsewhere.
The officials also say the Pentagon has ignored the base's "synergy" with Groton's submarine school and Electric Boat, a private submarine builder a few miles down the Thames in New London. The company says it can work more efficiently if the base remains upriver.
Former President Jimmy Carter, an Annapolis graduate who served on a nuclear submarine, wrote the commission on Aug. 15 urging that the base remain open.
Top Republican House leaders also support saving the base, including Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Representative Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. They say closing the base would weaken the nation's defense and save no money. The base is in the district of Representative Rob Simmons, a three-term Republican.
Retired admirals, most of them former submariners, have also spoken out strongly against closing the Groton base.
Critics have accused the Navy of closing the base while the question on fleet size remains unresolved. The Navy says the recent projection to shrink the fleet to fewer than 55 submarines was not a factor in its plan to close Groton, insisting that the plan was meant to save money. But in May, when Admiral Clark, who has since retired, appeared before the base closure commission, he suggested that the plan to shut down Groton was directly linked to the goal of having a smaller fleet.
"This is difficult," he told the commission, referring to closing Groton and other bases. "But here's what - the circumstances we face. A few years back we had almost a hundred attack submarines. We, our number's in the 50's now, and I've testified and submitted documentation that my belief is the number in the future is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood in the low 40's.
My number is 41. We've got too much structure."
The commission has until Sept. 8 to forward its decision on the Pentagon plan to Mr. Bush, who will then pass his recommendation to Congress for a vote. Mr. Bush has signaled that he will accept the commission's decision.
Norman Polmar, an author and a consultant to the Navy, said in an interview that submarines were regarded as less crucial than aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships, which are considered more versatile. "It's a player," he said, "but not a major player."
Submarines also have proven more expensive to build than Navy budgets have predicted. The cost of the new Virginia class of attack submarines, intended as a cheaper alternative to the earlier Seawolf class, has soared to an estimated $3 billion a boat, up from an earlier estimate of $2.1 billion, more than the Seawolf, according to an analysis by Mr. Hellman. The high cost has forced the Navy to build one new boat a year instead of two, although it hopes to raise the rate to two a year in the next decade. The attack submarine fleet, now at roughly 55, had about 100 boats in the late 1980's.
"Their dominant capability was in supporting World War III in Europe - this idea that we have to keep the seaways open against a massive Soviet fleet bent on shutting down our forces in Europe," Mr. Hellman said. The United States military, he said would not be "doing that anymore." But submariners say their boats can fight terrorism through intelligence gathering, spending months at sea monitoring underwater communications cables, and by launching special forces to shore in capsules. The boats can also fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from below the surface to land targets hundreds of miles away. In addition, they say, the boats are crucial for facing more traditional naval concerns that have shifted to the Pacific, where China has invested heavily in submarines - although its fleet is less sophisticated.
Closing the Groton base would be "a big mistake," according to Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., a policy research center.
"The largest concentration of undersea expertise in the world is located in Groton and New London."