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Panel Questions Decision to Close Long Beach Yard

March 07, 1995|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Members of a special military base closings commission sharply questioned the wisdom Monday of closing the Long Beach Naval Shipyard instead of a similar facility in New Hampshire that the Navy itself ranks lower in strategic military value.

And the chairman of the eight-member panel revealed that even more installations will be added to the list of those marked for closing by the Department of Defense. If that happens, it could mean enough savings in other areas so that the Pentagon could keep Long Beach open.

"We will add some," said Alan J. Dixon, chairman of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. "We've already made a determination that we will add some."

Dixon and other panel members, in their first public hearing on the final round of Pentagon closures, were particularly troubled that the Long Beach shipyard was rated higher in military value than the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, yet was targeted for closure while the New Hampshire facility was spared.

"They're pretty similar. They're almost a tie," Dixon said about Long Beach and Portsmouth. "The point now is, which one is the right one to save? And we're going to look at the whole situation. What is the appropriate thing to do?"

Commission members expressed equal concern that California already has been singled out for more closings and deeper job losses than any other state in previous base closings.

In past years, the commission, for the most part, repeatedly has approved the Pentagon's recommendations for base closings--and only in exceptional cases added or deleted installations to the closure list.

"When you look at it over the past, they confirm the recommendations most of the time," said Wade Nelson, the commission's chief spokesman. "So it is rare. In almost nine times out of 10 they go along with what the secretary of defense recommends."

Navy Secretary John H. Dalton and other top Navy officials testifying at a hearing before the commission agreed that the decision to close Long Beach was painful. They also conceded that California has suffered a greater share of hits since the military started closing bases when the Cold War ended five years ago.

But they argued that Long Beach should be closed because, unlike Portsmouth, it does not have the capability of serving the Navy's nuclear fleet. Closing Long Beach, which would save $1.9 billion over the next two decades, would be the largest single savings in this round of base closings.

Dalton said he spared four smaller naval installations in California that had been on the closure list to ease the burden on the state. They are the Naval Warfare Assessment Division in Corona, the Fleet and Industrial Supply Center in Oakland, and two San Francisco installations--the Western Division Naval Facilities Engineering Command and the Supervisor of Shipbuilding, Construction and Repair facility.

"I decided to leave Long Beach on the list of recommendations, but I also decided to remove some other installations from that list," Dalton said. "I got input from a number of sources but the decision was mine."

Under intense questioning, Dalton and other Navy leaders repeatedly were asked to justify why Long Beach lost out to Portsmouth, especially since Long Beach fared slightly better in a military value ratings scheme devised by the Navy.

Under that complex ratings scale, the Long Beach yard scored 38% for total military value, while Portsmouth came in at 37.8%. The ratings scale considered workload and dock space, along with defense strategic factors and quality-of-life issues, with 100% being the highest possible score.

"Obviously when you look at the numbers it's hard to justify, without any other considerations, closing Long Beach and keeping Portsmouth open," Dixon said.

But the Navy said there are other factors that weigh against Long Beach and that the internal rankings should not be the only measure. They said it is equally important to consider which bases best fit the future needs of the Navy.

Robert B. Pirie Jr., assistant secretary of the Navy for installations and environment, said that Portsmouth can service nuclear submarines, a capability that does not exist in Long Beach.

"If you're weighing it, Long Beach against Portsmouth, Portsmouth was more desirable," he said.

Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda, chief of naval operations, said that "in a very simple-minded sailor's way, let me simply say these are apples and oranges."

"One is on the East Coast. One is on the West Coast," he said. "One repairs surface ships, non-nuclear. The other does primarily submarine nuclear work, with the heavy emphasis on refueling. Those are not the same thing."

But Commissioner Wendi Steele wondered whether the Navy simply was reacting to President Clinton's comments in January to a New Hampshire audience that Portsmouth "would probably not be closed." Dalton responded with an emphatic no. New Hampshire will host the nation's first presidential primary election next year.

After the hearing, Dixon, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois, emphasized that the commission has not reached any decisions on individual bases.

"I do not favor one side over the other," he said.

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