Keep White Oak wind tunnel, top general urges


WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's top general said yesterday that a key research facility at one of the five Maryland bases targeted for closure in the latest Pentagon cuts was "unique" and should "probably be retained."

His comments raised the possibility of some relief for the local pain of the Pentagon base closures, announced Tuesday, which threaten 1,211 civilian jobs in the state.

The facility employs about 70 of the 201 civilian workers facing the loss their jobs at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at White Oak, on the Montgomery-Prince George's County line, one of 146 bases the Pentagon proposes to close this year.

Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission that the loss of the center's hypervelocity wind tunnel would "eliminate a unique national capability." The wind tunnel has been used to support the space shuttle, and now is employed in missile-defense research. It is also used by private industry.

The general told the independent commission reviewing the Pentagon's closure list that the wind tunnel "should probably be retained." The commission has the power to endorse, alter or reject the Pentagon's recommendations.

Effectively, the general was inviting the commission to reprieve part of the White Oak facility just 24 hours after the Pentagon's closure proposal. But, he said, "we have no military objections to closing the base that houses it."

A senior Pentagon officer, who asked not to be named, said General Shalikashvili favored keeping the wind tunnel open with a small Navy support group, while closing the rest of the base. To move the wind tunnel to another base would cost $140 million to $170 million, said Robert Voisenet, head of the aerodynamics branch at the White Oak naval center.

The officer said General Shalikashvili brought the wind tunnel to the commission's attention because "there are very strong feelings that the capability does need to be preserved."

Sharing those "strong feelings," according to the officer, is Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch, the chief draftsman of the latest round of base closures.

"I'm glad General Shali and I agree about the uniqueness of the wind tunnel," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

She said that she and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a fellow Maryland Democrat, would try to convince the commission to keep open the whole White Oak naval center.

The Base Closure and Realignment Commission has until July 1 to review the Pentagon's closure list and forward its own recommendations to President Clinton and then to Congress. Both must accept or reject the commission's proposals in their entirety.

Communities affected by the closures will try to persuade the commission to remove local bases from the list.

Maryland's congressional delegation is preparing a bipartisan campaign to save the five targeted Maryland bases: White Oak; Fort Ritchie in Cascade, Western Maryland; the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Annapolis; the Army Publications Distribution Center in Middle River; and the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda.

The state stands to lose 1,211 civilian and 481 military on-base jobs, and hundreds more support jobs in surrounding communities.

Mr. Perry warned yesterday that another round of military base cuts might be necessary in three to four years.

"Put simply, we will not have adequate funding for our highest priorities -- readiness and modernization -- if we do not continue to close bases that we no longer need," he said.

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