In a preemptive fight to save New Jersey’s military bases from forced closure by a cash-strapped federal Department of Defense (DOD), a bipartisan effort by New Jersey’s federal and state officials has joined with the private sector to try and head off any move to shut down the state’s second-largest employer.
In late June, both legislative chambers in Trenton passed resolutions to urge Congress to work on behalf of New Jersey’s bases. A few days later, Gov. Chris Christie approved $200,000 in the state budget for activities to be undertaken by a task force, headed by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Its members, who come from the military, government, and private sectors, have already visited three of New Jersey’s five operational bases and will likely visit the state’s two remaining (Coast Guard) facilities over the coming months.
The task force forms part of a multipronged approach that has New Jersey’s elected officials joining with other stakeholders in the state’s first coordinated alliance to fight the DOD on several fronts. The goal is to keep Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB MDL), the Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County -- and later, other bases -- off the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) list.
The group comprises leaders like the adjutant general for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA), CEO of the Economic Development Authority, president and CEO of Choose New Jersey, and former Congressman Jim Saxton (R-NJ). Saxton twice helped prevent JB MDL’s closure while he held office and later cofounded the nonprofit New Jersey Defense Enhancement Coalition that’s dedicated to keeping JB MDL open.
The threat of base closures resurfaced in February, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he and President Obama are seeking to reduce the nation’s military holdings to pre-WWII levels. Though he didn’t name specific bases, Hagel did target the KC-10 aircraft fleet for eradication; JB MDL houses 32 of them for refueling missions and transporting people and cargo. And Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), much of whose constituency serves and works on base or provides services to those who do, says New Jersey’s congressional delegation has told him that JB MDL’s fate is far from secure.
“We’re understanding the base is absolutely up for discussion,” he said. “We wanted to send a strong message that these bases have such a strong impact that their closure could decimate the economy of the entire region. “
While the task force’s plans haven’t been finalized, lawmakers expect its members to use the money to hire Washington, D.C., lobbyists, update a study that shows that the base’s flight plans don’t make the northeastern skies too congested commercial aircraft, and figure out ways to position New Jersey’s bases to meet the future priorities of military decision makers. The allocation, which is dwarfed by the millions other states are spending to preserve their own military interests, goes to the DMAVA to administer funds for the task force.
“We have to be amazingly proactive in . . . growing the missions at our bases,” said Sen. Diane Allen (R-Cinnaminson), who says the money, which she wrote into the budget, needs to fund marketing campaigns that demonstrate New Jersey’s ability to supply people and power to meet the military’s upcoming objectives. “This is a wonderful first step. While we’re starting late, we’re starting the right way.”
Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, says he’ll do what he can to help. “Quite simply, our nation’s security cannot do without Joint Base MDL and the men and women who serve there,” he emailed. “I’ll continue to fight each day to ensure that Joint Base MDL personnel have the funding, resources, and facilities they need to carry out and expand their missions.”
JB MDL serves the nation’s military as the only tri-service base in the country. It supports 80 mission partners and, according to militarybase.com, houses the biggest and most advanced unit in the world for aircraft-launching missions and is the world’s only base equipped to handle the entire spectrum of operations related to aircraft recovery and launch.
It directly and indirectly employs more than 100,000 civilians and enlisted personnel and generates $4 billion gross domestic product for the region and more than $100 million in state taxes. From 1989 to 1995, McGuire Air Force Base, Ft. Dix and Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst survived four targeted closure attempts between them until they were consolidated under Air Force leadership in 2009. According to the order given in 2005, JB MDL lost some of its missions at that time but gained a few new ones. Also in 2005, BRAC ordered Monmouth County’s Ft. Monmouth closed -- an event that was completed in 2011.
Today, lawmakers acknowledge that some capabilities of the joint base, whose oldest service section dates to 1916, are moving toward obsolescence. However, they insist that the base, along with the arsenal, plays a critical role in national security.
“When you look at the aircraft carriers, for example, the testing and development they’re doing are critical for the military’s launching capabilities,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), who served at both McGuire and Ft. Dix. “And the arsenal has a major impact on weapons development.”
Indeed, the Picatinny Arsenal specializes in advanced weapons and munitions research, development, acquisition, and lifecycle management for 90 percent of the types of weapons used by the Army. Reads the website, “Our mission is to support the Army's transformation goals. We streamline the acquisition process and deliver the armaments that Soldiers need exactly when they need them.” More than 5,000 soldiers, civilians, and contractors work in its more than 1,000 permanent structures.
When asked why New Jersey’s bases deserve to stay open when lawmakers and stakeholders across the country are waging similar battles for their local facilities, legislators answer with words like “vital,” “gaping hole,” and “overwhelming loss.”
“Closure is more than our economy could ever take, especially after the recession of 2008. We lag behind our neighbors in terms of job recovery,” Conaway said. “Pennsylvania with natural gas and New York with banking, they’re well on their way to full recovery. Here, it would have overwhelmingly negative impact.”
Even though downsizing and closure wouldn’t happen until 2017, according to Hagel’s proposal, any job losses would likely compound the bleeding from Atlantic City, where the recent and impending closure of four casinos will shed almost eight-thousand jobs within a few months.
Already, Hagel is forcing bases to freeze pay, limit raises and cut, benefits. And if sequestration cuts resume, the army, for example, will have to shed more than the currently anticipated 70,000 active-duty Army soldiers and officers by 2017. There’s no guarantee that Hagel’s proposal will pass Congress, as similar calls from the president to reduce the size of the military were rejected for FY 2013 and 2014. The last round of BRAC took place in 2005.