AUGUSTA – U.S. Department of Defense officials strongly defended their proposals to close or change the status of existing bases on Saturday at the last public hearing of the Base Realignment and Closure commission defending plans to close two facilities in Maine and downsize Brunswick Naval Air Station.
But Gov. John Baldacci and members of the state’s congressional delegation believe the DOD did not present convincing arguments and are confident the BRAC commissioners will not follow the DOD plan.
“It certainly gave them another bite of the apple, “Baldacci said,” but I don’t think they convinced the commissioners that their numbers work.”
He said commission members raised several questions about the cost savings projected by DOD and that none of the DOD speakers provided any new information on the cost projections.
BRAC commission chairman Anthony Principi agreed with Baldacci on at least one point. He was asked after Saturday’s hearing whether he had received any new information on cost savings.
“Not really, “he said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said that is the crucial issue before the commission. She said the premise of BRAC is that it will save money by closing existing facilities and redistributing responsibilities among other bases.
“It is clear that Defense Department officials continue to be unable to provide a persuasive explanation for their cost-savings rationale,” she said. “I can’t believe they did not make any attempt to justify their numbers.”
Snowe, who has been involved in every BRAC round held by Congress, said the process is seriously flawed. She said the questions raised by the commissioners indicate they are realizing they are trying to make decisions that will affect the nation’s military for the next 20 years without all of the information they need.
“It’s just ludicrous and preposterous,” she said. “Look at the track record of the DOD in projecting what we would need for the military. They never once brought up terrorist attacks during their reports in the 1990s, even after the first attack on the World Trade Towers.”
The DOD delegation, led by Undersecretary of Defense Michael Wynne, restated the arguments for their proposals even as commission members sought additional explanation of estimates and elaboration on the DOD proposals.
“If we approve the recommendation, we will have no operational bases in New England,” Principi said. He asked Wynne to “help him understand” why that is a good idea.
“We took a national perspective, not a regional perspective,” Wynne said. “We proposed what was best for the national defense.”
Principi also raised specific questions about the proposal to close the Defense Finance and Accounting Service center at Limestone, concerned that the facility had been created to help offset the close of Loring Air Force Base by a previous BRAC commission.
Wynne said the center is no longer needed.
“We have way too many facilities,” he said. “Technology has moved forward. We used to have a lot of people who did punch cards. We don’t have those anymore.”
U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, said Wynne was correct that technology has changed, but he said that means the Limestone facility should be expanded, not closed.
“We have shown this it is the most efficient of the facilities,” he said. “It will save the taxpayers if more of the work is done at Limestone than at other DFAS centers across the country.”
Michaud said the DOD has not made its case that consolidating the current 26 centers into three will achieve the savings projected.
He said that like other figures projected by DOD, the DFAS numbers do not hold up under scrutiny.
“We can only hope the commissioners go over all the information and do not rely on what the department is saying,” he said.
Wynne said the closing of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery is “crucial” to the Navy’s downsizing plan with a projected savings of $1 billion over the next 20 years. He argued the overall reduction in base costs is needed by the Navy to provide the cash for buying new aircraft and ships.
The proposal to downsize Brunswick Naval Air Station has concerned commission members throughout the process.
They voted to place it on the list for possible closure because they questioned its role as a base without aircraft.
But Adm. Robert Willard told the panel that there will be “detachments” of aircraft assigned to the base on an as-needed basis. He said savings will occur from consolidating maintenance of patrol aircraft, such as those based at Brunswick, at the Jacksonville (Fla.) Naval Air Station.
“We will be able to stage from there when it is appropriate to do so,” he said.
Snowe said the Navy has not been clear about what the role of Brunswick will be under the proposal. She said it’s conceivable the base could have as many aircraft operating under the realignment plan as it does now.
“We have not heard, clearly, what they intend to do,” Snowe said. “I hope the commission makes it clear what this new status is in terms of aircraft and staffing.”
Meanwhile, Baldacci said the state is continuing with its “planning for the worst while working for the best” and is developing contingency plans for whatever the commission recommends this week.
“The president has already said he will accept whatever they propose, “he said,” so this is decision week.”