Saturday, May 14, 2005

Base Closings

I am loosely following these base closing recommendations announced yesterday. The BRAC, which stands for base realignment and closure, process was first kicked in as we're now seeing it back in the early to mid 80's. The idea then was to throttle down on what we were spending on military infrastructure, especially the kind of infrastructure that doesn't serve a necessary function. There was a lot of excess infrastructure from the Cold War, and it was felt that a lot of money would be saved by making it go away --- duh, right? The problem is that the bases tend to be an integral part of the communities in which they sit, so simply making them disappear is no easy thing.

I followed yesterday's NPR coverage of the effect of the recent closing announcement. If the recommendations are carried out as suggested the impact will be especially hard here in New England, with Connecticut losing some 8,000 jobs from the closing of the submarine base in Groton/New London. The politicians were up in arms, Senator Lieberman was especially incensed that Groton should be on the chopping block. Interestingly enough loyalty or an effort to work with the administration didn't seem to carry much weight in the compilation of the closure recommendations, with two cases in point being the recommendations for the sub base and Ellsworth Air Force base in South Dakota. Lieberman has been one of the few democrats to actively try to work with and meet somewhere in the middle with Bush and company, and John Thune, who beat out Tom Daschle, the old democratic majority/minority leader, came into office with the suggestion that his close ties to the president would help to protect Ellsworth, which is the second largest employer in the state of South Dakota. Apparently no one was holding any trump cards when the recommendation list was compiled, but then it's also true that the fat lady hasn't sung on this one yet.

What amazed me, though why it amazed me I don't know given that I was listening to politician rattle one, were the senators specifically who were out there, Lieberman leading the pact, bellowing how the Pentagon planners were making horrible strategic mistakes and were jeopardizing the country. Listening to Thune talk about how moving the B-1 bombers at Ellsworth to wherever it is they're recommended to be sent, is a recipe for attack as now ALL of the nation's B-1 bombers would be located in one spot and thereby more vulnerable, I had to ask myself who he was worried about that had plans to take out all of our B-1 bombers? Lieberman was a bit more emotional, alluding to the historical nature of Groton, and that it was the home of the first U.S. nuclear submarine. Now why any of that would bear on keeping the base is beyond me, but he clearly felt it was important. He also alluded to the fact that since the base is a nuclear facility it'd be expensive to close and clean up, and, therefore, it'd be cheaper to keep it open; I'm sure we should ALL take comfort from that consideration.

One thing I got out of the announcement that took me a bit by surprise was the Groton closure. The Pentagon is clearly sending a message about our submarines. The naval station in Portsmouth, New Hampshire is on the cutting block and it has two submarines, and Groton has about 18. These are all attack submarines (ballistic missile submarines, which carry nuclear weapons, are stationed on the east coast out of Kings Bay, GA). Norfolk, VA, the other location for attack submarines on the east coast, has about 12 submarines stationed there. If Groton and Portsmouth close the submarines homeported in each are not going to be able to simply be shifted into Norfolk, which would never be able to go from 12 to 30 plus submarines. Many of the New England submarines are going to find themselves shifted into the Pacific fleet, on the west coast, Hawaii, and, yes indeed we have a submarine base there, Guam. That sends an interesting geo-political message (though this isn't really the first time it's being sent, as Groton was on the chopping block once before bit managed to get off --- I hadn't be aware, for some odd reason, about the first recommendation to close the place) to the world about where we see our priorities with regard to what we need to be thinking about defending, i.e. the threat of concer is more out of the Pacific than coming out of taditionally European waters.

With Bush's inclination to stick oil refineries on de-activated military bases it'll be interesting to see if Groton becomes a recommended site, along with Portsmouth in New Hampshire, right there on the Maine border, a stone's throw away from the Bush family compound at Kenneybunkport, Maine. My sense is that the residents of the largely bucolic chunks of real estate where these submarines sit won't take kindly to foul looking, and often smelling oil refineries. Submarines are fine, they're largely kept hidden anyway, but you can't do much to hide an oil refinery and all that comes with keeping it running.

Well, such is life. We shall see what makes the final list, and then how communities scramble to accommodate the encroaching realities. The politicians who bemoan the loss of their local military facilities based upon determinations they're hardly in a position to make (I'm sorry Senator Lieberman, but losing a sub base at Groton, CT is not going to undermine the strategic posture of the U.S., but then I guess you know that, too, and can't really afford to say so for attribution), really see the military installations as a jobs program for the local citizens, which is understandable. But then we as taxpayers shouldn't have to be paying for something that the military itself is saying it doesn't want or need, and so those jobs are forfeit to those realities. Those losing jobs from any base closing will be given far more of a helping hand from the government than anyone who lost a mill or factory job, so on the whole I don't feel overly bad about them --- well, heck, at least they can take comfort from the fact that their jobs weren't outsourced to Bangalore, right?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right. My mom was actually weeping yesterday at the news. Her life for the last 50 years has been spent on many of those listed. It's like losing her home town. Still, it is time to beat the swords into ploughshares and study war no more. I hope they turn Groton into a Nuclear Energy facility, and Lieberman should have been working on that 10 years ago.

12:02 PM  
Blogger James said...

That's an interesting point, i.e. turning the Groton site into a nuclear facility. Oddly enough I'm not sure I'm as comfortable with that as the present realities would seem to suggest. That's to say, there are at least ten nuclear power plants running there at any given time, removing those ten and putting in place a couple of larger ones, that don't move and thereby incur the risk of being on the water, would seem to make a lot of sense. But I truly do believe that the military is much more careful about running nuclear power plants than civilians are, and the regulation and control over military plants is far more stringent. So out of hand I'd have to say that I'm not really in favor of this, unless the plants in question were a new generation of plant that minimized the possibility of meltdown, and we were more comfortable with what we're going to do with the waste that these things generate.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But I truly do believe that the military is much more careful about running nuclear power plants than civilians are, and the regulation and control over military plants is far more stringent"

I believe this too, although, I don't know why! Still, it doesn't mean that situation can't change, and it really should. We need alternate sources of energy, and someone has got to get their hands dirty. What would be great is if the military were to create some sort of special department of energy technology, a la NASA and get the thing going. Gotta have a dream.

6:33 PM  
Blogger James said...

I suppose my "belief" is much more than just a belief, but it's based on the evidence and the differences that I understand for there to be between the two different ways of running nuclear power. The military plants are much simpler, and the military makes a point of manning them at a level in excess of what a civilian company would primarily to ensure that that the plant won't do something undesirable. The military also is not driven to keep the plant running at all costs --- the need to sustain profitability often clouds operating decisions in civilian plants, pushing the risk envelope --- during peacetime a commanding officer of a nuclear vessel appreciates that pushing the limit with a nuclear power plant offers few likely rewards at the end an accident or damage to the plant. So on the whole the military has managed to operate its plants for far longer without having sustained a reactor event/accident of any note.

That said, nuclear power plants are very complex entities, and the NASA solution doesn't appeal to me at all inasmuch as NASA is not run in the same style as the military is, and within that management style we've had two shuttles destroyed due to events that were not unique, but were in fact pooh poohed by the organization as not constituting significant risks. Given that line of thinking and overall mentality I'm not sure that a NASA effort would be the solution to this. I think we need two things: 1. A solution to the waste problem, and this is the deal killer for new plants as I see it right now but what do we do about the plants that are reaching the ends of their life cycles? I talk about this tomorrow a bit more. 2. We need simpler, essentially people-proof plants. The 4th generation plants that are being proposed and prototypes of which are being built in China and South Africa, have what are called passive safety features that are supposedly designed to all for safe operation regardless of however events or humans may otherwise screw them up, and this is needed before we can make new investments in nuclear power.

8:00 PM  

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