Senators question Pentagon's reasoning for base closings

BOSTON -- Closing Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, as recommended by the Pentagon, would set off a "regional recession" in Maine and neighboring New Hampshire, devastating local economies and putting more than 4,500 highly trained employees out of work, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission at Wednesday's New England regional hearing.

At stake are some of the largest installations on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's base-closure list and, lawmakers argued, the future of Navy shipbuilding, training and research in the coastal region.

Snowe, along with other lawmakers and shipyard employees, pleaded their case for Portsmouth with precision, using Navy documents and meeting minutes to show what they considered to be major flaws in the Pentagon's decision-making process. For instance, according to a June 22 meeting with lawmakers, Defense Department officials said the decision to close the shipyard was based largely on a planned 18 percent cut in the service's force structure, Portsmouth employee Earl Donnell said during the hearing.

That cut, however, will not occur until 2024, making Portsmouth vital to Navy shipbuilding and maintenance for at least another two decades, he said. By closing down the Maine shipyard, the Navy would overwhelm its other yards at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and Norfolk, Va., prompting maintenance delays for the "aging fleet," Donnell argued. A veteran Portsmouth worker, Donnell and others pointed to the shipyard's reputation for speedy and accurate work -- they overhaul a submarine faster than anyone else, officials argued -- and its highly skilled workforce as major reasons to keep the facility's doors open.

"If you close this facility, the people who work here will scatter to the wind," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. "We will lose their talents."

During the lengthy hearing, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, argued the Pentagon "thoroughly disregarded" Portsmouth's efficiency when estimating cost savings generated by closing the facility. She said the yard turns around many submarines ahead of schedule -- and often several months faster than other shipyards.

"Portsmouth never got credit for its efficiencies," she said.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., noted that costs to close the base and move work elsewhere were dramatically understated in the Pentagon's estimates. As such, the Navy would not recoup those costs for 34 years, or three decades later than it anticipates.

"No one denies, no one questions, that Portsmouth does the work cheaper," Sununu said.

In making their case, lawmakers also pointed to the Pentagon's military-value analysis -- the most important base-closure criteria -- of Portsmouth and other naval facilities. Portsmouth ranked higher than six other installations, including Pearl Harbor. Yet, the Pentagon opted to keep open the Hawaii yard because of its strategic location in the Pacific.

The independent BRAC commission has been on a cross-country tour of military facilities and regional hearings since the Pentagon released its base-closure recommendations May 13. The nine commissioners have until Sept. 8 to submit their list of recommendations to the White House.

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