There was a lot not to like in Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s speech Monday outlining future military spending priorities. Headlines that he wants to reduce the size of the Army to pre-World War II levels generated significant outrage across the country. Others weren’t happy with proposed reductions in benefits for active duty personnel.
Surely the responses did not surprise the secretary who was, after all, simply spelling out in real terms the consequences of building a military of the future under budget constraints imposed by Congress. With U.S. armed forces facing the most significant overhaul since the end of the Vietnam War, it’s understandable that defenders of the status quo are nervous.
In New Hampshire, Hagel received the most heat over his suggestion that he would pursue the closure of domestic military facilities without congressional approval. Congress has rejected the Defense Department’s previous two requests for another round of Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC). If Congress rejects his 2017 BRAC request, Hagel said “we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure.”
That didn’t sit well with N.H. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen, who interpreted it as a potential threat to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The shipyard is located just over the New Hampshire border in Kittery, Maine, and employs more than 4,500 people, with a yearly payroll of nearly $400 million.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Ayotte asked Robert Work, President Obama’s nominee for deputy defense secretary, what authority Hagel was referring to that would be independent of Congress. When his response proved inadequate, Ayotte responded.
“I take that as a lack of commitment and so that troubles me, because I believe that Congress should be in the position to approve BRAC and that there should not be a run-around done,” Ayotte said.
Ayotte is right, Congress should be in a position to approve BRAC, but it should also allow closures to happen, so that the military doesn’t have spend its limited resources on useless infrastructure.
In should be noted that Ayotte and Shaheen have been at the forefront of preventing previous BRAC rounds, and continue to take a hard line on future cuts.
“Another BRAC round would have serious consequences for our shipyard, our workers, and our economy in New Hampshire,” Shaheen said. “I will continue to use my position as chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness to fight any efforts to advance another round.”
By contrast, there is no such outrage in Maine, the state where the majority of Portsmouth shipyard workers live.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins has not issued a statement on Hagel’s speech and independent Sen. Angus King told Maine Public Broadcasting that Hagel’s spending priorities should reassure supporters of Bath Iron Works and the Kittery shipyard.
“The good news is in his statement, the secretary expressed his continued support for the naval work done at Bath Iron Works and also for the submarine program that’s the refueling and maintenance that’s done at Kittery. So those two came out very positively in terms of what the secretary said he’s committed,” King said.
And he’s right. Delve past the base closure references and Hagel comes across as a big booster of the Navy in general, and submarines in particular.
Even if spending constraints continue, Hagel indicated submarines would be safe.
“If sequestration spending levels return in 2016 and beyond, we will be forced into much tougher decisions on the Navy surface fleet. Six additional ships would have to be laid up, and we would have to slow the rate at which we buy destroyers. The net result of sequestration-level cuts would be 10 fewer large-surface combatant ships in the Navy’s operational inventory by 2023.”
Maybe it’s time to ratchet down the rabble-rousing rhetoric just a bit.