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N.E. lawmakers vow to fight base closings

Alliance called crucial to effort

New England lawmakers vowed to protect Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford from possibly being closed to save money. New England lawmakers vowed to protect Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford from possibly being closed to save money. (Tom Landers/Globe Staff/file)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / January 27, 2012
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WASHINGTON - New England lawmakers yesterday disparaged a Pentagon proposal to reduce its facilities nationwide, with several vowing to join forces to protect Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford and other installations from Maine to Connecticut.

The Obama administration revealed its request for another round of base closings yesterday on top of its overall plan to slice $487 billion from projected military spending over the next decade. Also included in those cuts, mandated by Congress, were plans to trim pay raises for troops and benefits for retirees and to reduce production of coastal patrol ships.

The proposal to create another Base Realignment and Closure Commission - whose job is to select which facilities to close - prompted bipartisan criticism. Lawmakers asserted that the military facilities underpin a vital part of their local economies and help secure the country. They also contended that the country cannot afford the upfront costs required to shutter the sites.

“Having only last fall completed the implementation of the 2005 [base commission’s recommendations] it is abundantly clear that the costs . . . were far greater than predicted and that the annual savings were far smaller than expected,’’ said a joint statement from Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, both of New Hampshire. They cited a Government Accountability Office report that said the closures cost about $35 billion.

Several members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation declared the base proposal “dead on arrival.’’

Yet as the military begins shrinking after a decade of war, Congress may have little choice but to approve major cost-saving measures such as base closures. The $487 billion in cuts were part of a deal to raise the nation’s debt limit last summer.

“In this budget environment, we simply cannot sustain infrastructure that’s beyond our needs or ability to maintain,’’ Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon, saying base closures were needed “as soon as possible.’’

Several lawmakers are already laying the groundwork for a joint effort to save New England’s facilities, an early attempt to line up a powerful bloc that can overcome the fierce parochial battles that defined the previous five rounds. Hanscom, home to the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Center, emerged as one of the region’s largest facilities after previous rounds closed such sites as the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, and Loring Air Force Base in Maine.

On Wednesday, representatives from the Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire congressional delegations met with business leaders on Capitol Hill to begin crafting a collective strategy for safeguarding Hanscom. The Massachusetts Defense Technology Initiative said the base is responsible, either directly or indirectly, for about 30,000 jobs.

“This is a team fight,’’ said Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee. His office convened the gathering. “Because of the dwindling resources in the military, we are going to have to join forces. There are so many things we need to fight for in this.’’

Brown said that the economies of each New England state are increasingly interconnected and that marshaling all the region’s political might will be necessary to overcome the historic budget pressures and compete with other regions of the country just as committed to keeping their bases. The previous practice of each state defending its own installations will not be sufficient next time, he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by other lawmakers and business leaders.

“I will be working with my colleagues in the Massachusetts and New England delegations to highlight the strategic importance of Hanscom Air Force Base as well as the role that Natick Soldier Systems Center plays in protecting our servicemen and women,’’ said Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat who has been working with Brown.

Chris Anderson, president of the defense technology initiative, an industry group, said it is imperative that the region use its collective power to protect installations that often employ residents of neighboring states.

“We have a good story to tell,’’ said Anderson, who also attended Wednesday’s meeting. “We just have to do a better job of telling it.’’

The modern process for closing military bases is well tested, if controversial. Congress has to vote to establish an independent commission to review all bases nationwide and then provide it with recommendations. To shield the process from becoming too political, Congress can only approve or disapprove of the entire list of bases selected for closure or restructure, with no amendments. The first base commission was established in 1988, with subsequent rounds in 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005.

New England - where higher real estate values put the region at a disadvantage in the process - was hit hard. During the last round, Cape Cod lost the Air Force fighter squadron based at Otis Air Force Base, which scrambled jets to respond to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The region was able to save the airfield when Senator Edward M. Kennedy secured funding for the Coast Guard to manage it.

Another casualty was the Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and its nearly 7,000 workers, and the Naval Submarine Base New London in Connecticut, with more than 8,000 employees, narrowly escaped closure.

Only a handful of active-duty military installations remain in the region, most of them relatively small. They include the Army’s Natick Labs and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee remains one of the few existing reserve installations.

A former Pentagon official involved in the last round of closures said yesterday the risk is pronounced for the region. Hanscom could be consolidated with other weapons development centers around the country, said the former official, who asked not to be identified because he may be called upon to play a role in a new base closure process.

Westover Air Reserve Base could also be affected. The Pentagon said yesterday it plans to retire some older C-5 cargo planes, which operate out of the base.

“This will take an intensive effort,’’ said Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, who convened a meeting of New England officials last year to talk about the potential for base closures. “You have to get way ahead of things with a game plan.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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