Closing notice jolts Naval Surface Weapons Center

March 05, 1995|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

The scientists and engineers at the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Annapolis thought for sure they would be safe from an independent base-closing commission this year, especially since they had persuaded that panel to keep the center open only two years ago.

But last week the Department of Defense again recommended closing the center across the Severn River from the Naval Academy, and employees are surprised and angered.

"We kind of felt they looked at what we do, evaluated and decided, 'You have to stay open,' " said Sam Shank, a computer engineer who works with a sophisticated program that helps design and evaluate ships and their machinery systems. "The only thing that's changed in two years is our workload has increased."

Wayne Adamson, who heads a branch that designs equipment for making fresh water from sea water, called the move "partly a political decision."

"I know a lot of these things are supposed to be financially motivated," he said. "I think they were aiming to make sure the bullet hit us this time."

Nationwide, the Defense Department designated 146 military bases for closure or realignment. Five installations in Maryland were targeted. The recommendations will be reviewed by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which can delete or add bases to the list. The panel has until July 1 to send final recommendations to the president and Congress.

This is the third time in four years the weapons center has been targeted in the closing and realignment process. The size of the center, which opened in 1908, was reduced in 1991, but most of the employees affected are still there, waiting to be transferred to new facilities under construction in Bethesda.

Employees and lawmakers beat back the threatened closure two years ago, only to learn Tuesday of new plans to close the center, most likely by 1998, unless they can persuade the commission otherwise.

Of the 431 employees affected, about 138 would be laid off and the rest transferred, some to Bethesda, but most to Philadelphia, according to Jim Scott, a spokesman for the center's Annapolis Detachment.

Commission members figured that the overall reduction in the Navy's budget and troop strength would lead to a decline in the workload of its technical centers over the next five years, according to a Pentagon document explaining the rationale for closing the center. Because of that decline, it makes more sense to consolidate the work done in Annapolis at the Navy's technical centers in Bethesda and Philadelphia, the document said.

The Pentagon estimates that it will cost $25 million to close the center and transfer the remaining employees. The move would lead to an annual savings of $14.5 million, amounting to a net savings of $175.1 million over 20 years, officials estimate.

"It's a tough time, but it's really a good news story for the taxpayer at large," said Cmdr. Roger Walker, the officer in charge of the center. "The Navy has more infrastructure than it needs right now."

But some employees say closing the center makes no sense because the research done there on the machinery of Navy ships is done nowhere else. And some of the equipment there is one of a kind.

For example, the center's Deep Ocean Pressure Simulation Facility, which can duplicate the pressure at a depth of 27,000 feet, is the only one of its kind. It is too expensive to move and will be abandoned at the site if the center closes, officials said.

"We're the only Navy machinery research and development operation in the country. Our work is not duplicated anywhere else," Mr. Shank said. "The money that we spend comes out of the requirements the Navy has to build ships."

Members of Maryland's congressional delegation hope to avert the closing.

"This move to Philadelphia in my judgment does not make sense. It's really counterproductive," said Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who was instrumental in convincing the commission to keep the center open two years ago. "I don't think they'll get savings and I think it will impact negatively on their mission."

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Republican whose district includes the center, said he believes the delegation will be able to convince the commission to keep it open.

"If I really felt this place were unnecessary, or would be more effective elsewhere, I would step aside and let it go through," he said. "But I don't think it shows good judgment. . . . So we're going to stand up . . . and let those guys keep working."

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