Jumping the Gun on Military Labs

May 03, 1991

A little-known offshoot of the Pentagon's latest base-closing plan is a massive, and at this point premature, reordering of the national research and development infrastructure. Dozens of labs, among them Annapolis' David Taylor Research Center and its sister installation in Carderock, Md., are headed for closure or realignment to minimize costs and maximize efficiency. One can hardly find fault in downsizing, given the profound changes in United States military strategy. But the research labs, testing and engineering centers now being swept up in the tide of recommended closures are not bases, but seeding grounds for some of the nation's premier scientific activity.

Congress recognized this, providing for a special commission to study, among other things, the mission of defense research, the most effective means of carrying it out and the technology demands of future systems. But thanks to ambiguities in the base-closure law, the U.S. Navy has deftly sidestepped this important process, conducting an analysis of its own and recommending closure or realignment of 90 percent of its labs before the commission is even named.

Charles M. Herzfeld, Pentagon research director, insists quick action is necessary in light of budget realities and the time constraints of the base-closing law, both of which mandate that lab restructuring be in place this fiscal year. Waiting, he maintains, could push the process well into 1993.

Driving this urgency is the Pentagon's attempt to save $1.1 billion in the fiscal 1992 defense budget by merging research and development laboratories and test and evaluation facilities. These savings, however, would be substantially offset by the costs of implementing the closures, conservatively estimated at $3 billion. Because these labs operate as profit centers in which all costs except military construction are charged to specific projects, critics contend the Navy can save money by simply adjusting its research staff to a lower project volume.

We heartily support the notion of paring down the military in line with new strategic realities, but the complexity of this laboratory system and its critical role in our national defense requires serious consideration. We applaud the efforts of Rep. Tom McMillen, D-Anne Arundel, to exclude laboratories from the base-closing list. While his concerns are plainly political, his underlying premise is correct. Congress rightly intended the issue of base and laboratory closings to be dealt with separately. Including laboratories on the base closure list before a commission is even named circumvents both congressional intent and policy.

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