The lingering fear of BRAC

No reassurance is too strong for communities that depend on bases, factories or shipyards.

As a practical question for this year, the Base Realignment And Closure commission is almost certainly dead — Congress made sure of that.

But like Godzilla, BRAC doesn’t stay dead for very long, and as long as people know it’s out there somewhere under the ocean, waiting for the right time to return, no one can feel safe.

Case in point: The editorial board of New Hampshire’s Union Leader newspaper, which already was feeling anxious about the future of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from a previous BRAC go-round. With this month’s fire aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Miami — which may have suffered so much damage it might have to be stricken — the newspaper is worried the BRAC trap could spring again.

Editorialized the board:

Thanks to the teams of courageous firefighters who donned air packs and fought through toxic fumes to control the stubborn fire, the USS Miami may be salvaged. But that is not a certainty. The Los Angeles-class submarine may have been damaged beyond repair. That would be nearly a billion-dollar loss for the Navy and a tremendous blow to the shipyard. In the short term, jobs might be endangered if the Miami’s 20-month overhaul is aborted. But if Portsmouth’s reputation for efficiency is tarnished, its entire future becomes uncertain.

It continued:

The Pentagon still wants to eliminate bases. Even though Congress does not, the unprecedented budget crunch looming at the end of 2012 could give the Department of Defense powerful leverage.

The base has solid political support in New England and both of New Hampshire’s senators are outspoken opponents of base closures. Kelly Ayotte told her Armed Services readiness and management subcommittee recently that since the country is “still paying for previous BRAC rounds from decades ago, it makes no sense to spend tens of billions on a new base closure process. … Savings can certainly be found within the Pentagon’s budget.” Jeanne Shaheen reaffirmed her opposition to base closures on Thursday, arguing that “the last time we went through this process, it ended up costing us 50 percent more than we were told and it achieved significantly less savings than we expected.”

But as long as the cause of the fire is undetermined, expect powerful advocates of other endangered shipyards to malign Portsmouth’s competence and efficiency. That is why Rear Admiral Rick Breckenridge’s immediate public promise of a thorough investigation is good news.

If the shipyard is not at fault, that finding needs to be publicized as soon as possible. If Portsmouth shares the blame, the shipyard must quickly make any changes necessary. This is not new. It did so nearly a half-century ago after a truly tragic disaster. After its USS Thresher was lost during sea trials on April 10, 1963, federal investigators criticized the yard’s procedures. Portsmouth responded by fixing the flaws and rebuilding its image as one of the nation’s essential defense assets. If necessary, expect its skilled workforce to do so once again.

Paranoid? Rational? Both, probably — or as much as  you can be when you’re assessing the fate of an important pillar in a local economy.

Multiply this sentiment by every town in America with a factory or a base or a shipyard, and you can understand why Congress was so eager to put a bullet into BRAC just as soon as the Pentagon spoke its name earlier this year. The problem is, even if the force doesn’t shrink along the lines DoD proposed, there’s still a good chance it could shrink, meaning these kinds of questions and decisions aren’t resolved — only postponed.