WASHINGTON — Like Mark Twain’s death, reports of the pending demise of the Cutler Naval Station appear exaggerated.
A high-ranking Navy official told Sen. William S. Cohen Thursday that an announcement issued by Cutler’s commander to the staff Tuesday stating that the base would be drastically downsized was “incorrect.”
At least one defense analyst, though, believes sweeping changes are afoot within the Navy’s strategic planning after Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s announcement earlier this year that his country’s nuclear submarines no longer would patrol the North Atlantic.
The absence of Russian submarines could have long-range implications for Cutler, the Portsmouth-Kittery Naval Shipyard, Bath Iron Works and the Brunswick Naval Air Station, which employ more than 20,000 state workers. The activities of those Maine facilities, in varying degrees, evolved from that threat of Soviet subs, said retired Capt. Jim Bush of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. Bush is a former commander of a U.S. nuclear missile submarine.
“Although there are numerous infrastructure studies going on within the Department of Defense, there are no current plans to cut personnel or change the mode of operation at Cutler,” Undersecretary of the Navy Dan Howard said in a statement issued by Cohen’s office in response to the announcement Tuesday by Cmdr. Richard C. Joyce, Cutler’s commander.
Joyce told staff that the jobs of 120 military personnel and 75 civilian workers would be eliminated by September 1993 as part of a major Pentagon restructuring. A much smaller civilian crew would operate the facility, it was indicated.
That kind of downsizing at Cutler would result in the loss of an annual $3 million payroll for the Machias area, according to Elmer L. Harmon, president of the union representing Cutler’s civilian workers.
After meeting with Cohen and aides to other members of the state’s congressional delegation late Thursday afternoon, Navy officials issued a statement quoting Howard as saying, “Cutler is no more at risk than any other installation in the Navy.”
Located on Machias Bay in Washington County, Cutler is the only line of communication to submerged American nuclear submarines. It is believed to be the world’s largest radio station.
Cmdr. Joyce’s announcement astonished and angered Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and other members of the state’s congressional delegation. They had been told by Navy officials only last summer no significant changes were contemplated at Cutler.
Throughout the day Thursday, Cohen’s aides said the announcement looked like a goof-up. They said they received confirmation of that assessment during the closed-door meeting with Navy officials.
“I can’t think of any reason why they would (scale back Cutler),” Bush said. “To me, it’s the most vital link that we have to our strategic forces. When Cutler went down, things were bad for us. The backup stations were not very good,” the retired submarine commander said. “Unless there has been some new change in technology, or a significant change to our strategic policy, I can’t imagine why they would phase-down Cutler.”
There have been some recent advances. Bush said that U.S. nuclear submarines recently have been outfitted with new technology that enables commanders to reprogram missile targets in “about two minutes.” Formerly all missiles were preset with target data at the submarines’ home bases.
As a result of this advance, the Navy can greatly reduce the size of its nuclear submarine patrols, Bush said. The fall of the Iron Curtain also has altered U.S. strategic planning substantially.
According to Bush, “hundreds” of targets in the Baltics and Eastern Europe have been deleted from U.S. missile target lists in the two years since the breakup of the Soviet Union and its former satellites.
“Still, there always will be a need for reliable communications with the submarines, even though fewer will be on patrol,” the CDI spokesman said.
The post-Cold War absence of Russian submarines could affect other components of Maine’s military-industrial complex. A new round of base closings similar to the one in 1991 that ordered a shutdown of Loring Air Force Base are under consideration within the Pentagon, and will be acted on by President-elect Bill Clinton and the new Congress next spring.
At risk could be the Brunswick Naval Air Station, with 3,500 personnel, whose aircraft patrol the North Atlantic in search of Soviet subs; and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, with 7,500 workers, which overhauls nuclear attack submarines designed to track and sink subs.
Bath Iron Works, with 9,200 workers, also could be affected. The shipyard’s major program is construction of the DDG-51 destroyer, designed to chase and sink enemy submarines.
Brunswick is “vulnerable,” Bush said. “The Navy has two East Coast submarine patrol bases. It could get by with one.”
Although Navy officials have indicated a desire to keep open all five of the service’s government shipyards, Bush predicted that there will be a political tug of war between Connecticut’s Electric Boat and Virginia’s Newport News yards.
Dale Gerry, a Cohen aide assigned to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said it was “premature” to conclude that the mistaken announcement of deep cutbacks at Cutler were the “forerunner” of other military restructuring evolving from the withdrawal of the “Red October”-type Russian submarines that once posed a nuclear threat to the East Coast.