It's not just the locals who are gnashing their teeth about the Pentagon's proposed shut down of the giant sub base in New London, Connecticut. Key members of Congress and undersea warfare experts are mad, too.I support keeping the base open, House Armed Service Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) told Defense News. In discussing base closures with Secretary Rumsfeld, the only facility I talked to him about other than Southern California installations is the Submarine Base New London.So far, objections to the Pentagon's base closure plan have come in two flavors, mostly. Either folks don't want their neighborhood installation closed. Or they think that the Defense Department's larger consolidation strategy is flawed. Base Realignment and Closure commissioners, for example, are taking a page from Phil Carter's notebook, and voicing concerns that fewer national guard depots "would make it even harder to retain their forces if members have to travel more than 50 miles to report to their bases," according to The Hill.But the Naval Submarine Base New London home to 18 submarines and 33,000 sailors, civilians and family members -- seems to be an exception to the rule, generating far wider support than other installations."The Navy's [need for] advanced training is so great that it is hard for me to believe that there would be a significant saving in shutting down Sub Base New London," Rear Admiral Hank McKinney, the former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet's submarine force, tells Defense Tech. "If the issue is to relocate [the] submarines to Norfolk [Virginia] and Kings Bay [Georgia, the other two sub installations on the East Coast], where there are better maintenance facilities then there probably is an argument for shutting down the submarine support side of the base. But I am not convinced that it makes sense to shut down and relocate the training establishment. The Navy kept [the] Great Lakes Naval Training Center [near Chicago] open to support training and I believe we should do the same in New London."Undersea authority Joe Buff is a whole lot less gentle, calling the rationale for closing the base "deeply and dangerously flawed." Click here to read what he has to say.
The report's main justification for closing the New London base is that existing naval berthing space (piers and docks) on the East Coast is in excess of required capacity. The report also states that the reduction from 3 to 2 bases supporting U.S. Navy submarines on the Atlantic seaboard will maintain adequate fleet dispersal without affecting operational capability. Let me pick this "logic" to pieces.Firstly, America's submarine fleet is barely half the size it was at the end of the Cold War, and is rather badly overstretched due to too many worldwide mission commitments. Slow, meager future submarine acquisition plans only promise to make the problem more severe. Our Silent Service fast-attacks may dwindle to 28 boats by 2029, only half of what we have today -- and what we have today is barely enough.The Navy itself has stated that in essence every submarine must act as a two-ocean warship, transiting between the Atlantic and Pacific very rapidly in any crisis situation. The most covert route is also the shortest -- through the Arctic, north of Canada. Were New London not available, a round trip from Atlantic to Pacific would be 1,000 miles longer from Norfolk, Virginia, and 2,000 miles longer from Kings Bay, Georgia. The added travel time and wear and tear, over a protracted period of high-tempo ops, become serious crew retention, safety, and cost concerns.Worse, with weapons of mass destruction in play and continuing to proliferate, the idea of concentrating indispensible skills and installations in very few places defies military common sense. Suppose a terrorist or rogue does succeed in nuking Norfolk or Kings Bay, with New London closed. If one Atlantic Coast base were destroyed, only one would be left, and badly overtaxed. How will new submarine crews be trained? How will vital research be performed? Where will subs that survive the attack, or were at sea during the attack, go as an interim home port that has the unique resources required to adequately support them? Imagine how vulnerable they'd be if they only had one possible refuge, rather than a choice between two. When viewed in this context, the BRAC Report's supposed "excess berthing capacity" suddenly doesn't appear so expendable, does it? To me, it's quite the opposite: New London becomes more vital than ever, not simply as a fully active facility in its own right, but also as a reserve against a future threat of unknown source and nature, whose effects in a single surprise attack could devastate a whole base.Couldn't this same argument be applied to every military installation? Not really. Submarine bases must be on a coast, and aside from the three existing ones on the Atlantic, all the other ones are on the West Coast or in Hawaii or Guam -- much too far away to provide adequate redundancy.Planes can use a civilian airport, and troops can live in tents. Nuclear submarines are temperamental, needful beasts that just don't have these sorts of options and protections.