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Military cuts are sharpest in New England

Officials worry for security, culture

New England has experienced a greater decline in military presence since the end of the Cold War than any other region of the country and is now at risk of losing its only active-duty air and naval bases, according to data compiled by the Globe and government officials.

Thirty-five of 93 major bases shuttered across the nation since 1988, or a third of the total, were in Northeastern and Midwestern states, part of an exodus of large military installations from Northern states over the last decade and a half to the economically friendlier South and West.

Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: Where the cuts are

The six New England states saw the largest drop in active-duty personnel over the period. Nearly 60 percent of full-time military personnel based in the region went away as their installations were closed by decisions of four Base Realignment and Closure commissions, the last in 1995.

In 1988, New England was home base for 30,600 active-duty personnel. It is currently home to less than 12,700.

Now, New England is bracing to save the operational units that are left: its only remaining air base, in Brunswick, Maine, and only naval base, in New London, Conn. And some political leaders contend that in the push to shutter more facilities this year, a major region of the US homeland, where terrorists struck three years ago and where millions of people reside, could be left vulnerable.

''We cannot forget that it was in the Northeast that the worst terrorist attack on American soil occurred, leaving 3,000 Americans dead," said Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine. ''Given this new reality in which we live, it is simply unimaginable that this BRAC round would close any more New England facilities."

The United States Northern Command, the military headquarters established in Colorado in 2002 to oversee domestic defense, maintains that every geographic region of the country is protected with the same level of effort.

''We don't concentrate on one area at the expense of another, whether that is South, North, East, or West," said Michael Kucharek, chief of media relations for the command in Colorado Springs.

Kucharek declined to provide specifics on plans for defending New England, including whether further base closings could slow response times to an attack.

Meanwhile, other observers worry about the social impact of further base closings, predicting that more losses could sever the cultural connection between so-called blue states and the military.

''What concerns me is how the forces are moving to a red state-blue state bifurcation," said John Pike, a military scholar at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. ''Most of the bases are in the red states, and the bases in the blue states are mainly in red congressional districts. The military is a normal part of society in red states and not a normal part of society in many blue states."

In Massachusetts alone, the number of military personnel dropped by 74 percent between 1988 and 2002, from 9,335 to 2,427, far higher than the 24 percent reduction nationwide, according to government statistics compiled by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a military lobbying group.

Maine had a 54 percent drop, from 5,849 to 2,689, according to the institute. The reduction was even more precipitous in New Hampshire, where the number of active-duty personnel in the state went from 4,143 to 326, a 92 percent drop and the largest slide in the nation.

It was part of a wider trend. Across the entire Northeast the drop in military personnel was 37.5 percent. In the Midwest it was 46.6 percent. But the West only saw a 30 percent drop, while the South witnessed a mere 15 percent slide.

''There is an unmistakable societal consequence if we create a military without ties, in the form of active duty bases, in every part of the country," said Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat and senior member of the House Armed Services committee, predicted that a military absence in the Northeast could limit recruitment, if young people aren't inspired to join the services ''when troops are already stretched thin."

The New England military map is far different than it was less than a generation ago. Before 1994, for example, at least nine air bases operated in the region. Now just one is operational, Brunswick.

The list of full-time bases that have closed since the end of the Cold War includes Otis Air Force Base in Sandwich; Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H.; the Army's Fort Devens in Ayer; the South Weymouth Naval Air Station; the Portsmouth Naval Base in Kittery, Maine; Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine; Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, which no longer has a military airfield; Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee; and Plattsburgh Air Force Base just over the New York border from Vermont.

Base-closing specialists say lower costs have pushed military facilities South and West. In addition, inclement weather in the North can be an obstacle for military training, specialists said. Some also blamed local politicians and business leaders for failing to bring new military-related projects to the region, while others suspected Pentagon payback for the region's largely liberal voting record in Congress and opposition to increased defense spending.

Whatever the reasons for the closings, Snowe and other members of New England's congressional delegations are trying to fight back on national security grounds, arguing that more cuts would leave the 21 percent of the US population that lives in the Northeast less secure.

Citing intelligence reports, they point to a variety of potential threats to New England. They include the use of aircraft as weapons; the use of commercial cargo containers to smuggle terrorists or nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons; crashing a large cargo ship into a refinery or bridge; or detonating a liquefied natural gas carrier.

But now on the chopping block is Brunswick Naval Air Station, the only remaining active-duty airfield in the region, housing five full-time and two reserve squadrons of P-3 Orion patrol aircraft.

''Naval Air Station Brunswick is the only fully capable military airfield left in the Northeast," said Rick Tetrev, a retired Navy officer who is leading a task force to save the base.

But many military specialists criticize what they describe as scare tactics to save bases from closing, saying that the security arguments are politically driven. National Guard units -- including those stationed at former active-duty bases such as Pease, Westover, and Otis -- are capable of providing homeland security, they say.

''I believe the military should be free to determine where it wants to put its forces, free from political considerations," Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado and a homeland security specialist, said in an interview. ''Base structuring, like weapons procurement, should not be political. There are two military structures in the Constitution: a standing Army and Navy to defend our borders and interests abroad, and the so-called militias that became the National Guard. They are tasked with protecting the homeland, not the standing Army or Navy."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.


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