Commissioners quizzed officials on what alternatives they considered when weighing whether to close the facility, a decision that would affect 8,500 military and civilian jobs. They also questioned how much closing the base would cost, and what it ultimately would save.
The decision comes as the Navy scales back its attack submarine force from about 100 subs several years ago to about 50 today. The diminishing fleet moved the Defense Department to suggest consolidating its sub bases, leaving the East Coast with Norfolk Naval Station, Va., and Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, Ga.
"Where do we want to be in 20 years? What do I want this to look like?" Adm. Vernon Clark, chief of naval operations, asked the commission. "We believe this is the right choice."
Navy officials said they considered, among other options, moving the submarines stationed at Norfolk to Kings Bay and New London. However, such a move would result in few cost savings at Norfolk, an expansive installation that is home to 78 ships and 133 aircraft.
"If we moved all the subs out of Norfolk, what happens? We don't close the base, and we only marginally affect the public works on the base," Clark said. The Navy doesn't "save large resources until ... you close the fenceline."
The Navy expects closing New London to cost $679.9 million, which includes investing $238 million to expand Kings Bay to accommodate roughly 3,200 personnel the service would relocate from Connecticut. Service officials, using "conservative" estimates, said they hope the closure eventually will save $1.6 billon.
Commission Chairman Anthony Principi voiced concern that relocating personnel to Kings Bay might flood the local community and overwhelm schools, housing and roads. "The last time I was there, [there was] limited infrastructure on the base and in the county," Principi said.
Navy officials countered that the base's commander worked with the commission and they concluded the base and community could handle the additional personnel.
"In all of our moves, we looked at both ends of this," said Navy Secretary Gordon England. Norfolk also would absorb some of the New London personnel.
Despite the advantages the Navy sees in closing the Connecticut facility, Clark conceded the decision to shut down New London was a difficult one, given the base's legacy as the birthplace of the military's submarine force.
"New London is a perfect example to raise when we talk about very, very difficult choices," he said. "We have a heritage in New London."
The Pentagon's recommendation, announced Friday, provoked an immediate backlash on Capitol Hill, where the Connecticut delegation decried the decision.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.,likewise said he opposes the decision because of the base's close proximity to Electric Boat's submarine manufacturing facility.
Connecticut Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Christopher Dodd, attended the hearing, as did Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., whose district encompasses the base.
"We believe the answers that have been given on military value and the cost of closing and moving are not right," Lieberman told reporters as he left the hearing for a vote. The savings generated from closing New London have been "grossly overstated," he added.
Both senators said they were encouraged that several commissioners had asked the Navy questions about the New London recommendation.