BOSTON — The next round of nationwide military base closings is likely several years away, but New England’s business and congressional leaders say it’s not too soon to begin protecting the region’s bases from possible shutdown.
The regional effort, known as the Defense Technology Initiative, emphasizes New England’s brainpower over its military brawn. It argues that what the region lacks in conventional military assets, it makes up for in the technological innovation critical to modern warfare.
No one knows for sure when the next Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) will be formed or how deeply it may cut into domestic military bases. Regional initiative organizers project 2015 is the next likely date for the broad federal review. But they also note that defense spending is already under the microscope as Washington grapples with the federal deficit.
“We need to prepare for the reality that every defense installation in America will be under scrutiny coming into 2015,” said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Kerry and fellow Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, recently hosted a meeting of New England lawmakers to begin plotting the six-state region’s strategy.
Several regional bases narrowly survived the last round of closings in 2005. The commission voted to save the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the Maine/New Hampshire border, despite Pentagon recommendations to close both facilities.
The panel closed the Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine, but spared the Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, though its squadron of F-15 fighter jets was relocated to Barnes Air National Guard base in Westfield, Mass.
Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass., and the Army Natick Soldier Systems Center — both key research and development hubs for the military — remained intact.
“Part of the success in keeping those bases open … was their proximity to the world-class defense technology cluster in Massachusetts and New England,” said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.
The council recently launched a two-pronged effort to strengthen ties between military installations and cutting-edge research taking place at regional companies and universities.
One is an online tool called the Innovation Access Network, which aims to connect bases and other large organizations with smaller inventors and entrepreneurs who have great ideas they may need help developing, Anderson said.
A second piece calls for the first-ever “mapping” of New England’s defense-related assets and their economic impact, so the information is ready before the next BRAC process.
“We need to be able to sell the region based on its value and sometimes I think we haven’t done that well enough,” said Matthew Pierson, a member and former chair of the New Hampshire High Technology Council.
In southern New Hampshire alone, dozens of firms are producing electronics, communications and optical products that help give U.S. soldiers an edge on the battlefield, Pierson said.
“I think the message is that innovation is what sets New England apart from the other regions of the country and it’s not easily duplicable,” he said.
The economic arguments are critical, but political clout can also be a factor. With the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the region lost a powerful supporter of local military bases whose influence will be missed — and whose absence is another reason initiative organizers say it’s critical to get ahead of the next base-closing process.
At stake are not only thousands of military and civilians jobs at the bases, but the waves of economic activity for local businesses and defense contractors. Most of the installations also have long histories and are a source of great civic pride.
The Connecticut Office of Military Affairs was formed in 2007 and authorized by the General Assembly to invest $50 million in the Naval submarine base after the facility’s close call in 2005.
Officials say losing the base and its estimated $4.5 billion annual economic impact would be a regional catastrophe. John Markowicz chairs the SUBASE Coalition, a private group dedicated to saving the facility, and said pumping cash into the base is one of the best ways to maintain its viability.
But despite the funding by Connecticut lawmakers, he said he’s not taking the base’s future for granted. He knows, he said, that the list of Naval installations available for BRAC consideration has gotten shorter.
“I’m aware of the fact that it’s a competitive process,” Markowicz said.