Aberdeen Proving Ground has been part of the fabric of Harford County for so long that it sometimes seems to have an aura of permanence. Locally, it is referred to in conversation the way people in other environs might refer to a nearby desert, mountain or lake.

At 98 years old, the post is old enough that there isn't much in the way of living memory of a time when it didn't exist. Just because something has been around for 98 years, however, doesn't mean it will survive to be 100, or 198.

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People in Harford County were strongly urged this week by the county government and an advocacy group called the Army Alliance to turn out for an Army hearing on the possibility that 4,300 civilian and military jobs would be cut at APG over the next five years. Such a reduction would constitute a substantial percentage of employment on post, which is about 22,000.

In addition to constituting a reduction by about a fifth of APG's job base, such a cut would be yet another in a succession of changes that, whether people in Harford County want to acknowledge it, have tended to make the installation progressively less relevant.

Even now, without facing more cuts, APG is home to vast amounts of empty office space. New buildings were constructed after the 2005-06 round of defense base closure and realignment changes, which were anticipated to bring a net employment increase to APG. The period of realignment, however, coincided with as bad an economic downturn as has been experienced in modern times, as well as across the board government spending cuts known as sequestration, brought about through a combination of Congressional action and Congressional inaction.

The result: while APG survived the last round of BRAC cuts, it has the look of a place that has been largely vacated.

Going back a few years prior to that BRAC round, APG saw its standing diminished when the leadership of the installation command structure was scaled back in rank. In addition, whereas large groups of enlisted personnel were cycled through APG many years ago, it is no longer a facility geared toward hosting many people in uniform.

The last BRAC changes were supposed to have completed a transition for APG that was to turn it into more of a research and development operation, even as its traditional role as tank testing facility was greatly diminished. As a practical matter, the transition away from tank testing made sense. Testing of modern weapons of war is more efficiently done on installations out west that dwarf the 72,000-acre installation.

Research and development – the functions that make large scale testing necessary – can easily be done at a place like APG.

The problem, however, is research and development can also take place at any number of other places, be they existing military installations or new facilities or even facilities appended on to those more massive testing facilities farther west.

In addition to the local issues facing APG, there's also a management ethic within the U.S. Department of Defense that expects the Army to become a force of about 420,000 to 450,000 people, about 100,000 fewer than now among its ranks. There's no way a national effort at reducing the force will not end up having an impact in Harford County. Whether the full cut of 4,300 civilian and military positions at APG ends up taking effect, the trend within the Army means one way or another, cuts are coming.

The efforts by the Army Alliance, the county government and other organizations to demonstrate that APG remains a vital and unique part of the national defense structure are commendable. APG has tremendous potential as a military installation, and has played a vital role for nearly a century. As a byproduct, it has also served as a driving force in the economy of all of northeastern Maryland, which is a large part of why there's so much effort going into trying to ensure APG remains in operation.

Times change, however, and that may mean the next round of BRAC changes could result in APG becoming the next Fort Monmouth, which closed in New Jersey when many of its functions were consolidated at Aberdeen after the last BRAC round. It is good strategy for Harford County and the Army Alliance to tout APG as remaining a vibrant and vital installation. That, however, can't be the only strategy. Harford County and the surrounding areas need to start making plans for the possibility of a future that doesn't include the Army at Aberdeen. While APG may be around in some form for years to come, there's a distinct possibility that it would go away, and failing to plan for such an eventuality would be, to borrow a military turn of phrase, planning to fail.

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