WASHINGTON -- Staging a last-ditch effort to hold off the impending closure of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey lawmakers told a congressional panel yesterday that plans to move operations to Aberdeen Proving Ground would endanger the lives of U.S. soldiers overseas.
Researchers at Fort Monmouth developed the signal jammers used to thwart the improvised explosive devices that have claimed the lives of more than 1,500 troops in Iraq. With 70 percent of Monmouth workers saying they would quit before moving to Aberdeen, the base's advocates warned of a devastating loss of knowledge and experience.
"It will take several years to replicate in Aberdeen what is currently a world-class facility," Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness. "We're at war. We don't have years."
Philip W. Grone, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, disagreed: "The needs of the technical community, the needs of the war fighter are all going to be met," he said. "The notion that somehow senior military leadership ... would put lives at risk on the battlefield is simply wrong."
New Jersey lawmakers sought the hearing yesterday to learn how the Pentagon is implementing the Base Realignment and Closure plan approved by Congress and President Bush in 2005. Maryland is preparing to receive some 15,000 direct jobs and up to 45,000 indirect jobs with the expansion of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fort Meade and other facilities in the state. Fort Monmouth is one of 24 installations slated to close.
The hearing came a day after the General Accountability Office reported that the estimated cost of the realignment had climbed nearly 50 percent to $31 billion nationwide, while projected savings have dipped to $4 billion per year. The Pentagon says the move from Fort Monmouth to Aberdeen will cost $1.45 billion, nearly twice its initial estimate.
Unlike previous rounds of BRAC, the 2005 plan was aimed at maximizing war fighting power, not cost savings. Grone said the cost estimates were used to help planners choose among options, not gauge actual expenses.
Still, Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings asked GAO official Brian Lepore to confirm that the realignment would help the Pentagon save money. Lepore, director of defense capabilities assessment at the congressional watchdog agency, said savings would be realized through both the move from Fort Monmouth to Aberdeen and the realignment nationwide.
The New Jersey delegation is given little chance of keeping Fort Monmouth open. Congress has not reversed a BRAC decision since it set up the independent process nearly 20 years ago, and readiness subcommittee Chairman Solomon P. Ortiz, a Texas Democrat, suggested it wasn't likely to start now.
"This committee is not here today to overturn any decision already made," Ortiz said. "Communities with bases closing should continue planning. Communities with new assets coming should continue to prepare for that eventuality."
The New Jersey lawmakers argue that Fort Monmouth is a special case. They say the BRAC commission made its closure contingent on certification by the Pentagon that the move would not disrupt support for the war on terror.
"With all due respect to our good friends in Maryland, they will find very quickly that they don't have the personnel" to continue operations without disruption, Smith said.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, chairman of the "BRAC Cabinet" set up by Gov. Martin O'Malley, acknowledged "work-force challenges," but said a work force that leads the nation in advanced degrees and institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland made the state capable of rising to the challenge.
"Maryland understands its expanding responsibility to the country," said Brown, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who was awarded a Bronze Star in Iraq. "We embrace that responsibility."
Grone said the Pentagon would issue its certification by the end of the month. But he said the closure of Fort Monmouth "is not, as some may contend, a conditional closure."
"The BRAC Act requires the department to close and realign all installations so recommended by the commission," he said.
The Department of Defense, Grone said, "has already determined that Fort Monmouth can be closed and its functions relocated without jeopardizing its support for war fighters in the field, and the BRAC commission agreed with that conclusion. "