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Joint Base's Survival Facing New Challenges

Renewed lobbying effort needed to save base in light of budget cuts, changing technology, officials say

Patch File Photo
Patch File Photo
Written by Daniel Nee

Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst employs nearly 40,000 people, about evenly split between civilians and military personnel, and accounts for nearly 65,000 indirect jobs in Burlington and Ocean counties, but its existence is at risk due to federal defense spending cuts, competition from other states and the military's changing technology.

The only tri-service joint base in America, MDL, as it is known, "is shrinking," said retired U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, who is now a member of the New Jersey Defense Enhancement Coalition, a group created to support the base's existing missions while advocating for expansion.

"We have shrunk because the federal budget has shrunk," said Saxton, who met with the Ocean County Freeholders this week in an effort to drive support among public officials for keeping the base alive.

McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is unique, Saxton said, but faces a variety of threats to its mission and its very existence.

The most serious threat is another round of Base Realignment and Closure proceedings, known as BRAC. The three bases, on their own, survived previous rounds of BRAC commissions after the end of the Cold War, between 1989 and 2005, even after the former Lakehurst Naval Air Station was tapped for closure.

"There is some talk that there will not be a BRAC, but regardless, there are some serious budget cuts which could have a negative impact on our base," said Ocean County Freeholder John P. Kelly.

Cuts to the national defense budget are already having an impact at the base, according to state officials, who report 14,000 fewer jobs at the base than just one year ago. The 2013 sequestration of the federal budget is to blame, Saxton said, and another round of cutbacks could have an even larger impact.

"The Air Force announced that if there is another sequester, the entire KC-10 fleet … they’re going to retire those airplanes," said Saxton.

The Joint Base is home to the KC-10, a transport and air-to-air refueling platform and the KC-135R, a 1960s era tanker that was developed a decade earlier.

"They are older than the grandparents of the guys who are flying them," said Saxton.

Though the two lines of tankers will continue to be maintained by the military, the new KC-46, which is likely to be introduced in 2017, will be the Air Force's replacement. The first planes off the line will not be heading for MDL, but instead to a training base in the western part of the country.

If those planes eventually end up elsewhere on a permanent basis, "we are potentially looking at a situation where almost half of our fleet will go away," Saxton said.

To make matters worse, even in the absence of another round of BRAC proceedings, the Air Force has the power to shift assets such as the east coast air-to-air refueling fleet to other bases, such as Dover Air Force Base in Delaware or Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina.

"It can be a plus, too, because we can attract missions here," said Saxton, but that takes influence in Washington, something that New Jersey officials have not funded for several years.

In the past, state officials looked to the Rhoads Group, a lobbying firm led by Barry D. Rhoads, a West Point graduate who specializes in saving military facilities. Rhoads, Saxton said, is one of the people most responsible for saving Lakehurst and the other former individual installations in the 1990s and 2005.

At the height of the 1990s and 2005 rounds of BRAC proceedings, Rhoads' firm was paid $280,000 for lobbying services, but between 2005 and 2010, investments in lobbying decreased exponentially. By 2010, the state was spending about $40,000 on lobbying in favor of the Joint Base.

In light of the new challenges faced by the Joint Base, that is something that has to change, officials are now saying.

A pending bill in the state General Assembly would appropriate $350,000 to the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs for the purpose of preserving the base.

Proposed by Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean), the bill was introduced in late May 2014 and has yet to receive a vote in the Assembly Military and Veterans' Affairs Committee.

"In the mean time, we’re still out with a tin cup," said Saxton, who favors rehiring Rhoads, who is now co-chairman of Cassidy & Associates, another lobbying firm.

"Three-hundred-fifty thousands dollars sounds like a lot of money, but we were talking in my office about [the state] giving the Philadelphia 76ers $82 million to build a practice facility in Camden County," said Kelly, referencing the state's decision to provide tax breaks to the NBA team.

Some state officials are taking notice of the threat to the Joint Base, especially in light of the jobs lost when Fort Monmouth was shut down by the U.S. Army in 2011.

"Thousands of military and civilian jobs were lost and there is no doubt that region was hurt," said Assemblyman Chris J. Brown (R-Burlington, Atlantic, Camden). "Local businesses closed and people had to choose between moving to an out-of-state base or finding another job."

At the end of the day, however, pleading the case of New Jersey's economy will not save MDL. Just as in the previous BRAC proceedings, officials say a future lobbying effort must show the federal government that the base is indispensable.

"We proved how effective and how efficient this is towards the national defense of our country," said Kelly, who pledged the freeholder board would assist in rallying support for funding a lobbying effort.

For Brown, who has proposed a state resolution urging the federal government to leave MDL and Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County off future BRAC lists, the loss of another base after Monmouth's closure is too much for the state to bear.

"New Jersey has already paid the price in earning its stripes," he said.

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