Southern Md. wary of relying on military work

January 13, 1991|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Correspondent

LEXINGTON PARK — Lexington Park--If it flies and it has the word "Navy" on it, there's a good chance it will be undergoing testing at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, home of the Navy's primary aircraft testing center.

On any given day there are about 136 planes at Pax River, as the people on base refer to the military installation, including F-14 and F-18 fighters, A-6 attack planes, EA-6 radar jammers, P-3 submarine hunters and the brand-new vertical-takeoff V-22 Osprey troop carriers.

When one of these front-line fighters takes to the sky, the roar of its big engines can rattle the windows of the homes below. There are occasional complaints, but most people seem to take the noise in stride. As they see it, an F-14 darting across the horizon is a symbol of economic health, not just for this St. Mary's County town but also for much of Southern Maryland.

The region's economy is as dependent on Pax River and a sprinkling of other military installations now as it was on tobacco during much of its history, and there is some concern about the long-term outlook for the military facilities now that the Cold War has ended.

Nobody is about to suggest scrapping the Pacific fleet or turning intercontinental missiles into satellite launchers.

But defense spending is on the decline, and that is causing some concern among state and county economic-development officials in Southern Maryland.

And there is good reason for concern. A defense industry task force established by the governor's office took a hard look at the state's military installations this year to assess the potential impact of Pentagon budget cuts and came up with some eye-opening observations, including:

* Defense installations account for nearly 50 percent of all jobs in St. Mary's County, 54 percent of the county's total payroll and 48 percent of its tax base.

* One installation, the Naval Ordnance Station at Indian Head, accounts for 22 percent of Charles County's payroll.

* The federal government estimates that a 10 percent cut in the defense budget would make 11,500 to 11,700 civilian defense jobs vulnerable in Maryland.

The task force also concluded that Southern Maryland deserves attention because of its heavy economic dependence on military bases and recommended that the state Department of Economic and Employment Development conduct a follow-up study to take a closer look at the region's ties to Pentagon spending.

Although the state study was completed just before Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, officials of the Southern Maryland military facilities say little has changed in their operations or in their outlook since the threat of war in the Persian Gulf cropped up.

A more recent study by the Electronic Industries Association predicted that total military spending will decline by 33 percent (after adjustment for inflation) by the end of the decade. The Washington-based trade group, composed of the nation's larger defense contractors, predicted that Pentagon spending will return to its pre-World War II level of 3 percent of the nation's gross national product, down from the current 5.5 percent.

None of the military installations examined by the state's task force expressed dire or immediate concern about closings or severe budget cuts. But nearly all expressed "great uncertainty for the longer term," according to the study.

There is a bright side to Southern Maryland's military dependency. Much of the work done at the facilities in the region is related to research and development, or testing and evaluation, and such work is generally considered less vulnerable to spending cuts than most other programs are.

The Southern Maryland installations are not expected to suffer as much as others across the country, particularly those with large troop concentrations.

The Naval Air Station in Lexington Park is a prime example of the kind of work done in this region.

As the Navy's primary testing facility for naval aviation, "it tests everything from the planes to the avionics to weapons systems and the ground-support equipment," said John Romer, a spokesman for the installation.

One plane that will not be testing any time in the near future is the A-12 Avenger. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recently canceled the $57 billion program because of what he called mismanagement by its builders, General Dynamics Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Corp.

Pax River was to be the principal site for testing of the A-12, a stealth fighter designed to replace the A6, the Navy's primary light bomber.

The naval air base had started work on the construction of a new hangar for the A-12 and its testing of the craft was expected to involve about 600 employees.

Another aircraft, though, will continue to be tested at Pax River despite its uncertain future: the V-22 Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane. Although the Bush administration has balked at freeing up money for mass production of the plane, there are funds in the budget for continued testing and evaluation.

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