Optimism after BRAC commissioner visits fort

BY SUE M. MORGAN Staff Writer

Staff Writer

EATONTOWN — If the independent commission reviewing the Pentagon’s list of military bases recommended for closure agreed that Fort Monmouth should be shuttered, they would not have sent their most technically savvy colleague to check out the local base, according to two area legislators.

Both U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone (D-6) and Rush Holt (D-12), who guided Philip E. Coyle III, a member of the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, on his five-hour tour of the Monmouth County installation on June 29, believe that the visitor from California is perhaps the best qualified of the nine commissioners to judge and understand the fort’s highly technical missions.

“Commissioner Coyle is the most knowledgeable in these areas,” Holt said on Thursday. “We’re fortunate to have someone like that on the commission.”

Presently a senior advisor to the private Center for Defense Information, Coyle is a recognized expert in laboratory research, development, test and evaluation facilities, according to his published biography.

A one time Assistant Secretary of Defense under former President Bill Clinton, Coyle seemed particularly interested in the expected “brain drain” that opponents of the Pentagon’s proposal to transfer the bulk of the fort‘s communications and electronics commands (CECOM) to a Maryland installation have predicted would result if the Defense Department carries out its plans, Holt and Pallone said.

“[Coyle] had real skepticism about how the Pentagon got its list,” Holt said. “He was skeptical about some of the Pentagon’s arguments about costs.”

Less than 20 percent of the fort’s more than 5,000 civilian employees would uproot their families should their jobs be transferred to the Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground, the Pentagon’s preferred new site of CECOM for the armed forces, the two congressmen added.

Hiring new personnel to replace those workers in a new location would cost more in the long run, a point that was not lost on Coyle, Pallone said.

“[Coyle] asked all the critical questions of the Pentagon’s recommendations,” Pallone said. “He has a lab background himself and had questions about the cost.”

With more than thirty years working in technical operations relating to national defense, Coyle appreciates the extent of training and expertise needed to create the fort’s products such as devices that detect roadside bombs, Holt said.

“He understands that research and development and product acquisition is not something that you just get off the shelf,” Holt said.

In particular, Coyle appeared skeptical about whether or not a complete transfer of Fort Monmouth’s operations and personnel could be accomplished within the six-year time frame mandated by the Pentagon, Pallone noted.

A failure to completely relocate one post’s operations to another is a “violation” of the Pentagon’s BRAC requirements, he said.

After seeing equipment housed at Fort Monmouth, such as the Joint Satellite Communications Engineering Center, and talking to those who now use it to communicate with soldiers on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, Coyle seemed especially doubtful, he added.

Coyle understood that the engineering center’s satellite equipment would have to be dismantled, moved and then reconstructed entirely at Aberdeen because no such structure now exists there, Pallone said.

In the long run, that entire process would only detract from what the Pentagon expects to save by moving Fort Monmouth’s operations and putting the nation’s armed forces at risk, he pointed out.

“That cost was not figured in,” Pallone said.

Coyle could not reached for comment at press time.

None of the other nine BRAC commissioners are expected to visit Fort Monmouth between now and Sept. 8 when the panel is due to complete its review of the Pentagon list and submit its own recommendations to President George W. Bush, Holt said.

Altogether, the Pentagon has recommended closing 33 installations across the country and realigning or combining the missions of well over 100 others.

Though Coyle did not commit one way or another as to whether or not Fort Monmouth could be spared from closure, that he came at all is promising, according to Holt and Pallone.

Head BRAC Commissioner Anthony J. Principi and General Lloyd Warren Newton paid an official visit to the fort on June 3.

Because at least two BRAC commissioners must visit those “hundreds of sites,” that Fort Monmouth was seen by a third decision-maker bodes well, Holt said.

“I think we were fortunate to have this repeat visit,” he said.

Coyle might be able to advocate for the fort because he can point out it’s overall “military value” in protecting all branches of the armed forces, Pallone said.

“He didn’t even have to come. He came voluntarily came on his own,” Pallone said.

Both legislators also visited the Aberdeen Proving Ground for about eight hours on Friday to explore how Fort Monmouth would fit into its new site.

A public hearing on the future of Fort Monmouth and other targeted installations in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland was scheduled for this morning at Goucher College in Baltimore.

Both Pallone and Holt, who co-chair the local Save Our Fort Committee, a group of advocates for Fort Monmouth, are expected to testify before the BRAC commission at that time.

Eatontown Mayor Gerald J. Tarantolo has also indicated that he will testify on behalf of his borough and the governments of Tinton Falls, Oceanport, Little Silver, and Shrewsbury, the five communities that either host or border the fort and which would be negatively impacted by a closure.

The Pentagon has stated that it expects that moving Fort Monmouth’s functions to Aberdeen Proving Ground, as well as bases in Virginia, Ohio, and New York State, would cost about $822 million. However, it has estimated cost savings of about $143 million over six years should the closure occur.