High-tech could help Md. weather military cutbacks

February 14, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

Fort Detrick -- A biting wind sweeps down from the Catoctin Mountains and nips at Staff Sgt. Curtis Jones' face as he and other soldiers in camouflage clothing dismantle a large satellite communications dish.

Stepping into a heated shelter, the soldier with the 1110th Army Signal Battalion talks about the events that brought him to this Army base near Frederick -- and his uncertain future. "There used to be a time," says Sergeant Jones, 29, "when you could count on the military for a career. It's not that way anymore."

Sergeant Jones, a six-year Army veteran with a wife and young daughter, still hopes to put in his 20 years and retire with half pay. But that dream of financial security may crumble like the Berlin Wall.

The Clinton administration's drive to cut military spending could hurt bases such as Fort Detrick -- which handles the Moscow hot line, as well as medical research and satellite communication. But there is greater concern for Washington County's Fort Ritchie, home of Site R, an underground war room where the president and top military officials could go during a nuclear attack.

Still, Maryland -- where the Pentagon spends more than $7 billion annually on pay -- should "hold its own" as the defense budget shrinks, says Marsha Schachtel. Some of Maryland's 15 major bases could be closed or scaled back, says Ms. Schachtel, executive assistant to the secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development. But she expects others to benefit from a nationwide consolidation that shifts work to Maryland.

Stephen S. Fuller, a George Washington University professor who keeps a close eye on military spending, agrees. Many of Maryland's military bases specialize in research and development, testing and evaluation -- symbols of the new military. Pentagon spending in those areas has been "fairly steady," the urban planning professor says, while cautioning that there is likely to be more consolidation to reduce administrative costs and redundancy.

The outline of the military budget is changing week by week, as President Clinton seeks to keep a campaign promise to cut Pentagon spending by an additional $60 billion over the next five years. Troop levels are expected to decline from 1.7 million to 1.4 million, and the number of civilian employees on military bases also will fall sharply.

More details on the cuts are expected when President Clinton sends his first budget to Congress next month. But any major cuts are unwelcome news in Maryland, which is heavily dependent on the defense industry.

Maryland ranks 11th on the Pentagon's list of states with the highest active-duty military employment. It's in the top five -- behind California, Virginia, Texas and Pennsylvania -- in the number of civilians working at military bases. And in fiscal year 1991, the latest data available, the Pentagon pumped $7.4 billion into Maryland's economy in the form of paychecks to active-duty troops, civilian workers, reservists and retired military personnel.

These lists don't give the full picture of the the military's economic impact on Maryland. These bases also employ thousands of outside contractors.

At Fort Detrick, for example, about a third of the 4,500 employees are outside contractors.

Fort Meade, which is home to the National Security Agency, is the biggest employer in Anne Arundel County. Aberdeen Proving Ground is the largest employer in Harford County, as is Andrews Air Force base in Prince George's County. Washington, St. Mary's, Frederick and Charles counties also identify military installations as their single largest employers.

"It's strange," said Dennis Murphy, head of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp., "but for some reason we have a tendency in Maryland to overlook military bases as major employers."

The state's economic development agency hasn't overlooked the importance of the military. Its 1990 study of Maryland's 15 major bases concluded that they represented 8.2 percent of Maryland's civilian employment, compared with 5.7 percent in the U.S.

Perhaps the biggest threat, Ms. Schachtel says, falls to the Naval Electronics Systems Engineering Activity in southern St. Mary's County. The base, which is involved in radio communication, underseas surveillance, target identification systems and other high-tech programs, stands a good chance of closing.

NESEA (rhymes with Chessie) is an example of a small facility with a big economic impact. The base employs about 48 military people and 350 civilian workers. But it does business with more than 2,000 contractors, says Susan Wilkinson, a county economic development specialist.

"These contractors represent about 7 percent of the jobs in the county," she said. "The best that we can figure, they represent 10 percent of the local wages, and they occupy about 30 percent of the office and warehouse space in the county."

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