Will base closings sap support for military?

New England could be a national barometer for public sentiment as the US military moves to fewer facilities.

Almost as far back as Don Russell can recall, planes from the nearby naval air station have roared overhead, an audible assurance of security, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now that this Maine base has been designated for closure, however, "this is going to leave a tremendous hole," Mr. Russell says wistfully.

New England's experience is in many ways a barometer for the nation, as the military contracts into fewer and larger installations. Despite Wednesday's dramatic decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) to keep open a shipyard in southern Maine and a submarine base in Connecticut, the region will have less military presence going forward than at any time in recent history. The concern is not so much one of security, but of society.

Some wonder whether the military, by leaving so many places where it has long been a part of the community, is setting itself up to become too remote from the very people it is charged with protecting. This changes the calculus on everything from defense budgets to recruiting and retention.

A looming disconnect

"As the military goes for fewer bases, there is an increasing disconnect between the military and the community," says Jeremiah Gertler of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Those trends have begun to take shape in the Northeast, where a once-strong military presence has slowly ebbed - and recruiting lags behind every other region of the country.

The further erosion of the military industrial complex in the Northeast could accelerate the trend, leaving the region with little stake in the military, either culturally or politically.

"Down the road, in a period when we're not in great danger, it might be hard to muster congressional majorities for defense budgets," Dr. Thompson says. "The irony is that the military's effort to make [BRAC] decisions based on merit might be undercutting its long-term political base."

In Brunswick, for example, quite aside from the reassuring roar of planes overhead, far deeper connections include the local pride in a base that trained pilots for World War II and has since become the state's second-largest employer.

The station was a "thread in the fabric [of the community] for years and years," Russell says.

Yet there are valid reasons why the Pentagon would wish to flee the Northeast and consolidate its bases elsewhere, despite a tendency to read political motives into the Pentagon's actions, analysts say.

After all, with fewer bases, there are fewer installations to protect, and in moving south, the Pentagon is following the model laid out by private business - moving to where costs are lower and land is more plentiful.

In voting to overrule the Pentagon and keep open the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Submarine Base New London, the BRAC Commission simply decided quality was more important than cost savings; the commission chairman suggested that both the shipyard and sub base were the premier facilities of their kind in the country.

The commission will send its final list to the president Sept. 8, and the president will then decide whether to forward it to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

Getting left bare

But these decisions resonate beyond skill sets and dollars and cents. To residents in places like Brunswick, there is a sense of being left bare.

"Every time the planes fly over our house, I feel safe," says Betty Sanford, sitting on the patio of a Friendly's restaurant near the base. "This will leave me without that good feeling."

The BRAC Commission rejected such safety concerns, saying that the Pentagon could use other airfields in the area if necessary. Likewise, experts suggest that Brunswick - and even the Portsmouth shipyard and Submarine Base New London - have limited strategic value, since the military is still shrinking after decades of cold-war growth, leaving the Pentagon with many more facilities than it needs.

"This is not just an industrial phenomenon, it's a recruiting and retention phenomenon," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

A democratic connection

And BRAC Commission chairman Anthony Principi told reporters as much after a hearing last month.

"It's important for our nation that our military and our society be close together," Mr. Principi said. "That's important for democracy. And it's important for recruiting. It's important for retention. It's important for building support for our engagements overseas."

Already, America is becoming less connected to its armed forces. Today, just 11 percent of American adults have had military experience - down from 20 percent in 1970. Today, 1 in 114 Americans is in the military. But at the end of World War II, the ratio was 1 in 12.

Fewer volunteers

In 2002, Rep. John McHugh (R) of New York told Congress: "Since far fewer people are recruited to serve in a voluntary military, the connection between America and its military is increasingly tenuous and less personal."

With the Pentagon now set to close scores of National Guard armories and other relatively small installations across the country, the Northeast in particular will offer a glimpse into how the departure of the military might reshape a community.

Says Thompson: "As time unfolds, we will see what it means to have very little stake in the military."

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