If the Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC) Commission accepts the Pentagon’s decision to close the New London Submarine Base in Connecticut, submarine production and support will suffer, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Projection Forces, said yesterday.
It could also exacerbate problems created by projected Navy demand for subs at a time when the nuclear naval industrial base is fragile.
Navy officials are projecting a need for a larger submarine force than the Pentagon’s BRAC team used in its rationale for closing New London. Bartlett said he fears that if the New London base is closed the Navy will lose its close relationship with General Dynamics’ nearby Electric Boat, which produces the nuclear submarines.
“Right now, the Navy trains on the submarines as they are being built,” Bartlett told The Hill in a phone interview from the base. Bartlett led a congressional delegation to the New London base yesterday to conduct a hearing on the state of the nuclear submarine force.
Even though the visit and hearing had been scheduled before the Pentagon released its base-closure list May 13, it stoked debate on whether New London should be closed. The independent BRAC commission plans hearings on the Pentagon’s New England recommendations next month.
Attending yesterday’s hearing were Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the House Armed Services Committee chairman; Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), the subcommittee’s vice chairman, whose district includes the base; and Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), the ranking member of the subcommittee.
Vice Adm. Charles Munns, commander of naval submarine forces, said in his testimony, “The last QDR [quadrennial defense review] specified a minimum force level of 55 [submarines] necessary to fill combatant commanders’ high-priority needs.”
Earlier studies suggested as many as 68 subs are needed.
“Other studies, including the 2005 QDR, continue today to refine the numbers of ships,” Munns said.
The pace at which the new Virginia-class subs are being built “will take us well below any of these levels a decade from now,” he added.
General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman share the contract to build the Virginia-class submarines, which calls for the companies to build one a year between 2003 and 2006 and two in 2007.
“At the rate submarines are being built, we cannot maintain the industrial base if we are going to be competitive with our peers,” such as China and a “reemerging Russia,” Bartlett said. “There is recognition that we need a higher build rate, about two per year, to reach that competitiveness.” Producing two submarines a year “comes close to what we need,” he added.
According to Adm. Kirkland Donald, the Navy’s director for naval reactors, the nuclear industrial base can build about two submarines a year as well as an aircraft carrier (which is also nuclear-powered) about every five years.
He said slow production makes the submarines expensive and added that “any further reductions in capacity would push the limits of viability and eliminate the modest surge capacity [in the event of increased need] we have today.”
Capacity shrank when the Seawolf submarine program ended in the mid-1990s, but “key nuclear-industrial-base capabilities and skills have been preserved, albeit in a fragile state and absent the cost advantages of a competitive market,” Donald said.
Additionally, by 2007, there will be only 1,000 nuclear sub designers in the nation, compared with 2,200 now. “The expertise resulting from our long-term investment is, today, atrophying,” Donald said.
Rich Harris, a spokesman for Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R) told The Hill, “Any discussion of increases in the sub fleet would mean that you need a significant increase in base capability and Groton [New London] is the best situated base in the country.”
The governor recently signed a bill that would provide $10 million in bond proceeds for use by the Navy or by towns, businesses or other organizations eligible for manufacturing assistance act funding.
“We are in the fight of our lives to keep our sub base open,” Rell said in a statement. “With this $10 million investment we continue a long tradition of investment by both Connecticut and the federal government in the only place on the planet that truly deserves the title of ‘Submarine Capital of the World.’”
Together, Electric Boat and the sub base provide 31,500 jobs, producing $2 billion in personal income and more than $3.3 billion in gross state product.
“New London is going to be a tough fight,” said a lobbyist who has worked on previous BRAC rounds. Closing the base would require military construction elsewhere, and those “costs need to be examined with extreme scrutiny,” he said.
According to Harris, four of the nine BRAC commissioners have been on the New London base and “have seen the real discrepancies.
“If there is a need for an increased submarine force, there is no need to shut the base down,” Harris said.