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Governor Mitt Romney and state officials expressed concerns at the State House over the Pentagon’s plan to shutter military bases on May 13. Romney has sought a review of how the closure of Otis Air National Guard Base will affect state response plans.
Governor Mitt Romney and state officials expressed concerns at the State House over the Pentagon’s plan to shutter military bases on May 13. Romney has sought a review of how the closure of Otis Air National Guard Base will affect state response plans. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Concerns heighten on plan to shut bases

Emergency response seen as compromised

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's plan to close military bases would ground a third of the nation's Air National Guard units and shutter hundreds of other armories and readiness centers, raising concerns among defense specialists and local leaders that the consolidation would hamper state responses to local emergencies.

The Pentagon plan announced May 13 would have a significant impact on the National Guard, the state militias that are under the control of governors during peacetime unless federalized by the president. More than half of the more than 800 large and small military facilities nationwide that would be closed or reconfigured are operated by the Air or Army National Guard. Among them is Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod.

Many of these bases have played a critical role in homeland security and are designated as staging areas for National Guard troops and emergency management personnel in the event of natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Lawmakers, interest groups, and security specialists worry that the preparedness level will suffer if the Pentagon plan is approved.

''Some of the concern among governors is not only the loss of jobs, but that some of these facilities are really important to state emergency plans," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, a lobbying group.

National Guard bases such as Otis provide governors with critical communications and other equipment that could be used in an emergency, and could serve as temporary shelters in the aftermath of a disaster, officials said.

Otis is home to the 253d Combat Communications Group, which, according to its mission statement, is required to provide communications for state agencies ''during local or statewide disasters of emergencies for protecting life and property, and to preserve peace, order, and public safety."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, told the Globe on Friday that he worries the closures of Otis and other National Guard facilities across the country did not fully assess the homeland security implications.

''Many of us in Congress are concerned that closures of National Guard bases was budget-driven only, and will leave serious gaps in air defense and homeland security," Kennedy told the Globe in a statement, after visting Otis on Friday with Senator John F. Kerry, Governor Mitt Romney, and other state leaders.

Romney, meanwhile, is also concerned about the effect on state preparedness plans, aides said.

The governor recently ordered the state's emergency management agencies to review the impact of Otis's closure on state response plans.

''Governor Romney has asked the Executive Office of Public Safety and other agencies involved in emergency preparedness to review all implications of the changing base alignment in Massachusetts," said Julie Teer, Romney's press secretary. ''The results on Otis will be part of a report submitted to the base commission."

The Pentagon maintains that its plan, now being reviewed by the independent commission, would save billions of dollars while also safeguarding homeland defense.

The base-closing process ''enabled the services to match facilities to force structure, and to make the best use of defense dollars," Air Force General Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week.

Republicans and Democrats are questioning whether the Pentagon's underlying analysis fully takes into account the homeland defense implications of the base realignment.

A bipartisan bill to postpone the base-closing process was put forward in the Senate last week, citing among the reasons for delay the need for a comprehensive homeland security strategy that identifies weak points and where additional military presence may be required.

''Once these bases are closed, they're gone forever," said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. ''And our nation cannot afford to lose invaluable national and homeland security assets at such a critical time in our nation's history."

Air National Guard bases are a particular regional concern. Otis is among the 28 Air National Guard units out of 88 nationwide that would be stripped of their aircraft under the Pentagon plan.

The National Guard Association fears that the Pentagon's proposal to move the aircraft will push experienced pilots and support personnel out of the National Guard because they will not want to move with their aircraft to bases far away.

''Some of the most valuable assets in the nation's defense arsenal would then be gone forever," said retired Brigadier General Stephen M. Koper, president of the association, which represents 45,000 Army and Air National Guard officers on Capitol Hill.

In Massachusetts, officials fear the loss of Otis could put Boston and surrounding areas at risk during a terrorist attack.

''Closing this base will make us more vulnerable by reducing fighter coverage for the Boston metropolitan area and the entire region," Kennedy said at Otis, noting that the 102d Fighter Wing scrambled as recently as Tuesday when a passenger on an Alitalia flight headed to Boston was believed to be on a no-fly list.

''Under the Pentagon proposal, only four interceptor aircraft . . . will be within a 175-mile radius of Boston," Kennedy added, referring to four fighter aircraft that will be stationed near Hartford, instead of the 12 now stationed at Otis. ''That's not enough for a large metropolitan area with so many high-value targets."

Located on the Massachusetts Military Reservation on the Upper Cape, Otis also houses Coast Guard units and forces from the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Other local emergency responders have also been trained on the base.

But with the loss of its main unit -- the 102d -- some like Goheen worry that the facility, like many National Guard bases, ''will wither away and die."

''What we have at these bases is mission-essential infrastructure," he said. ''The base-closure process seemed to penalize that."

Romney has proposed creating a homeland security training center on the site, telling Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, in a meeting last month that many of the required facilities are already in place.

He made a similar proposal to the Energy Department to train first responders for a possible incident involving liquefied natural gas tankers like the ones that offload in Everett.

Others warn that all National Guard facilities slated for closure or realignment require more scrutiny at a time when the nation is struggling to come up with improved homeland security strategies and local response plans in the event of natural disasters or chemical, biological, or nuclear catastrophes.

''It could impact some of the governor's ability to use state National Guard assets for state emergencies," said Hank Chase, a retired Navy commander who worked on previous base-closure rounds.

''Shutting these armories may undermine homeland security efforts, which rely in part on the geographic dispersion and availability of Reserve units to respond to domestic emergencies," Phillip Carter, a retired Army officer who has written extensively about military overhauls, wrote in a recent article published on his weblog and the website

''The base-closure commission should evaluate this impact before accepting the Pentagon's recommendations," he said.

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