The Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut hosted former Veterans Affairs Secretary and Base Realignment Commission (BRAC) Chairman and current Pfizer Vice President for Government Affairs Anthony J. Principi at a breakfast in Waterford this morning, November 24, 2008.
The highlight of his speech was the comment regarding possible closure of Submarine Base New London in Groton, CT – “The fight is not yet finished” when discussing steps that the state and region might take to prevent the base from being on the closure list in a future BRAC.
Mr. Principi was greeted with a standing ovation at the start of his address. After thanking the crowd for the welcome, he stated that he appreciated the area for its strong shipbuilding heritage, the dedication of the active duty military in the area and also the history of research and development that is exemplified by Pfizer. Researching and developing a new drug is just as risky as going down to the sea in ships, although the consequences of error are different.
He provided a brief background of the BRAC legislation and charge. The Commission was charged with determining if the bases recommended by the Defense Department for closure and/or realignment met the strict criteria of the BRAC legislation. The President and Congress had to accept the all of the Commission recommendations or reject all of the commission recommendations. This all or nothing approach tended to take the politics out of the final decision. Mr. Principi compared the process to a long cross country run vice a leisurely sprint.
The Commission work started late since one of the U. S. Senators held up the confirmation of one of the members in hopes of ending the process altogether. When finally constituted, the BRAC had five months to do the job instead of six and the first month was taken up with acquiring a staff to assist in the task while being bombarded with documents and requests from the States and Congresspersons who were on the list as promulgated on Friday May 13, 2005. The 119 bases on the list were double the four previous BRACs combined which made it a monumental task. Mr. Principi compared it to being given a box of shoes tied together with the task of separating into proper pairs of shoes while the owners of the shoes were demanding that their shoes be separated first. The process was further complicated by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for a place for the troops that were coming home as part of a drawdown in Europe, and trying to determine what military threats the country would encounter in the next twenty years. The commission made 182 base visits and published over 200,000 pages of written or electronic documentation. The commission approved 119 of the 182 action recommendations and submitted the recommendation to the President on time. The BRAC recommendations were approved by the President and Congress and are supposed to be complete by the end of 2011.
Mr. Principi felt the BRAC process was open, transparent, and nonpartisan. Politics was kept out of the recommendations. The decisions were based on whether the closures would enhance the military capability of the nation.
The closure of all New England military bases (SUBASE New London and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery Maine) would have eliminated a vital seapower projection region. The excellence in operations, knowledge and training, and the synergy with the Electric Boat Division would be impossible to replicate elsewhere. For those reasons, the closing of these bases was a mistake. Team Connecticut was vital in providing the Commission with information to support rejecting the closure decision.
Having escaped the BRAC in this round, Mr. Principi continued, is no reason to relax. The state and the region must have a long range plan for infrastructure improvement. The cost of defense is increasing. Aircraft carriers, submarines, and aircraft are more expensive and there is the continuing cost of the General War on Terror (GWOT). There is no doubt that the Defense Department will hold another BRAC in the future to consolidate, transform, and eliminate waste in the Defense budget.
The BRAC rules are not likely to change in a future scenario. The final selection criteria is in public law. “The fight is not yet finished.”
Mr. Principi closed noting that his current work at Pfizer permits him to visit SE CT and support the high quality scientists but he looks with envy and pride at the Base and Electric Boat whenever he crosses the Gold Star bridge to move between the two Pfizer locations in New London and Groton. He encouraged the state and the region to keep up the efforts to prevent the closure of the SUBASE in the future.
A question and answer period followed. I will identify the questioner if known –
Q. from State Business Advocate and former Congressman Rob Simmons – The State has pledged $40 million for assistance in upgrading the base infrastructure. In light of the fiscal crisis facing the state, is this still a good investment of limited state resources?
Ans. That is a small price to pay to keep the base. That investment should be returned ten fold. A show of community support is vital. NAS Oceania was added to the BRAC list by the commission just because there was no indication of community support but just the reverse as development encroached on the base and flight training was constrained by local restrictions in flight paths and altitudes. “Make the investment to keep the base up to date.”
Q. I have been reading about proposed defense department cuts from the new administration. Do you think those cuts will come from large programs or small items in the DOD budget?
Ans. The largest cut proposed is around 25%. This will require cutting from big ticket items. Such cuts may lead to another BRAC round.
Q. State Senator Andy Maynard – The criteria used in the DOD BRAC process seemed to be biased against SUBASE New London, for example, the use of cruiser equivalent lengths for piers. Should the criteria be altered to improve the data call scenario? If so, how?
Ans. Mr. Principi doubted the criteria would be changed. However, if the region wants the criteria changed, it should address those recommendations to Senators Dodd and Lieberman to change the legislation. The current criteria provide enough flexibility to permit the Commission to look at a different perspective than that provided by DOD. An example of this was the high cost of rebuilding the education structure at Kings Bay that was not provided by the Defense Department but by the region during the BRAC hearings.
Q. I have noticed the decline of the Russian fleet in the recent past. However, is China an emerging threat and risk for the U. S.?
Ans. China is building submarines and an open ocean fleet. It should be a concern and a potential threat over the next twenty years.
This post has been rather lengthy but I felt that the comments of the former BRAC Chairman were important enough to be considered by all in the state, not just the residents of Southeastern Connecticut that were in the room this morning. Representatives of the New London DAY and the Norwich BULLETIN were present this morning and I will provide a link to their articles when the are posted on line.
Update: Here is a link to the Norwich BULLETIN article by Ray Hackett, who played a major role, along with Bob Hamilton, then at the New London DAY, in getting the case out for TEAM CONNECTICUT during the last BRAC process.
Second update, November 25, 2008: Here is alink to the New London DAY account by Jennifer Grogan, the Military Affairs Reporter.