Saturday, May 16, 2009

What BRAC Could Whack..

Yesterday, at 1000 in the Shepherd of the Sea Chapel in Groton, CT, the senior-most operational commander in the Northeast region turned over with this relief, who is now Commander, Submarine Group TWO.

Rear Admiral Bruce Grooms left to become the Executive Director of the Joint Staff down at the Pentagon, having been hand-selected by Admiral Mike Mullen (Chairman, JCS) for the position. This would've made Admiral Grooms the #2 man for Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal, but that just changed, as McChrystal was recently named the top operational commander in Afghanistan. Admiral Grooms' relief is Rear Admiral Paul Bushong, who had been serving at the Pentagon as N87B (that's the deputy for the two-star on the Navy staff who represents the entire submarine force).

I've got a bunch of pics from the ceremony forthcoming -- I know I said that with Portsmouth, too, but they're not on my camera, so that's my excuse for not having them at the ready now.

If the last round of BRAC (that's Base Realignment and Closure) recommendations from former Secretary Rumsfeld had been approved, the last operational Navy base in all of New England would no longer exist. Until certain forces aligned to keep SUBASE Groton up and running, the proposal from the Pentagon was to save millions of dollars in the very long term by concentrating the entire East Coast submarine force in Norfolk, VA and Kings Bay, GA.

BRAC has already hit this region hard.

The general logic behind BRAC is that if you station people in areas where land is cheaper, you save a ton of money on things like housing, per diem stipends, and the many other personnel and logistics costs that are just higher in an area with a higher cost-of-living.

The second way the bean counters at the Pentagon can save a lot of money is by concentrating personnel and equipment. The military spends a small fortune every year on moving people around, paying for them to travel to conferences and other fly-in events, and on the costs of moving heavy equipment around. When you have MAJOR concentrations of assets, like you currently do in the Hampton Roads/Tidewater area of Virginia, you can peel back a lot of those costs, as you make it possible for everything from families to materiel stay in one general area for a heckuva lot longer.

But if you carry those two ideas to their logical extreme, you would just concentrate all your forces in one area with cheap land, which would violate one of the very few truly ironclad lessons/principles of history, which is not to over-concentrate everything in your arsenal. It makes you extremely vulnerable to a natural disaster (i.e. hurricane), an epidemic (just imagine swine flu but much worse), or a terrorist attack (a single dirty bomb detonation in a concentrated area of personnel).

Thankfully, the SECDEF was rebuffed back in 2005 and the birthplace of the modern submarine was saved. People who wish to stay in uniform AND serve in New England have a way to do so, and a whole region's worth of impressionable youngsters have potential military role models within a day's drive. It's hard to put an exact dollar value on that, but it definitely does matter. Already, the Northeast is by far the most underrepresented region as far as who feeds new recruits into the system nationally.

There are tons of examples of areas that have succeeded post-BRAC. A good example might be Pease AFB just outside of Portsmouth, which re-invented itself into a major commercial flight hub. There are already tons of bright, innovative ideas about what may happen out at Devens. But their home areas were already a lot less vulnerable than is southeastern CT.

The economy of that area is supported by seven pillars -- the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, General Dynamics, Pfizer, and the SUBASE. The casinos are important local destinations, but how many great jobs do they really provide for the educated and upwardly mobile? Also, if other parts of New England added casinos, a lot of the Foxwoods/Mohegan allure would be lost to convenience. Pfizer could pull chalks at any time, and already provides many of its jobs for foreign workers on temporary visas -- not the types to stay for decades and generations and make a human *investment* in the region.

A trip to the Groton Super Wal-Mart Thursday night just reinforced this for me -- nearly all the shoppers were either foreign Pfizer employees and their families or military personnel and/or their own spouses and families.

If the military rug were to be pulled out from under the local businesses that depend on those dollars to survive, I don't think many would. Downtown New London is already tumbleweeds, boarded-up storefronts, and "For Rent" signs. Mystic is still a regional tourist destination, but that's only seasonal, and it's a small part of the area.

I used to get a lot of funny looks when I explained to people that I moved to Lowell even when I had just learned I was being stationed down at the SUBASE (I probably still do but I'm so inured to it now I just don't notice). But as my time down there is drawing to a close, the decision seems like it makes more and more sense. The Merrimack Valley, and Greater Boston in general, has a ton going for it -- but you already knew that. Any one leg could get broken, and the table would still be standing.

Not so much for southeastern CT. I'm one of the most optimistic people I know, but in investment terms, I'm far from *long* on either Norwich or New London, so it's no accident that I didn't make either my personal or professional *base.* I wish them the best, though I know wishing is not exactly a concrete strategy.

And for what it's worth -- if it's worth anything -- I'll cross my fingers that the BRAC boogeyman doesn't come back around again that way, too.

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