WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- The Secretary of Defense last December spoke before the National Press Club to explain his vision and strategy for the future of the U.S. military in a speech titled, "The Force of the 21st Century." Although Secretary Leon E. Panetta will soon be leaving his position, there should be no doubt that many of his strategies, as well as what he called the ending of an "era of blank-check defense spending," will affect every Soldier and Department of the Army Civilian long after he departs.

Panetta spoke well of the success the American military has achieved, such as ending the war in Iraq in 2011 and the transfer of 75 percent of the Afghan population to Afghan security and control. He also spoke about the tough, challenging decisions required to build the force for the 21st century, which will entail a smaller, leaner military.

To some of those who have been at the Arsenal since the 1980s, this talk may bring back memories of the last "peace dividend" that was touted after America's success during the first Gulf War. The U.S. Army was so successful after pushing Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait that it reduced its active end strength from more than 700,000 to below 500,000 in about a 10-year-period. During that same time, the Arsenal's workforce declined from nearly 2,800 to just below 500.

Although it is not clear what future cuts to the defense budget might bring to the Arsenal, what the Arsenal leadership does know is that they are better positioned today than they were in 1992 to adapt to a significant decline in defense spending.

"One of the most important things that we learned coming out of the reductions in force in the 1990s was that we must better manage the right sizing of our workforce at least 12-18 months out," said Col. Mark F. Migaleddi, the Arsenal commander. "Today, we actively monitor and manage our workload to workforce percentages every month and we do not build any 'fat' into our near and long-term workload requirements."

What this intense workload management process has achieved through the last several years is a smoothing of the ebbs and flows of direct labor requirements so that the Arsenal's labor requirements have remained relatively stable. Approximately 600 people work in the Arsenal today, which is about the same number as it was two years ago.

"What we also learned is that we must be better at reinvesting in ourselves via such programs as the Capital Investment Program or what we call CIP," Migaleddi said. "Just from 2010 to 2012, we have invested more than $40 million in new machinery and minor construction."

According to Jim Kardas, the Arsenal's CIP manager, "When the average age of machinery exceeds 30 years, we try to bring on line new machinery that will help us compete in the tough defense market."

"The new machines have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year because the new capability that they bring often reduces set-up time, as well as reduces costs for maintenance and repair parts," Kardas said. "For example, many of the older machines no longer have manufacturers who can make replacement parts and so, when they break down the Arsenal may need to custom make the replacement part, which can be expensive because of the low volume requirement."

Kardas further explained that the advancements in technology in regards to controls, drives, and probe capabilities of the new machines have also greatly improved the quality of the Arsenal's products as computers now aide machinists in verifying machining operations.

As a result of investments made in previous years, the Arsenal will install more than 15 high-tech machines this year that will greatly improve the Arsenal's efficiency and capability, Kardas said. These machines range from a 26-foot computer-numerical-controlled lathe to a 6-meter rapid bore machine. Because of the unique machining capability that is required to manufacture tank, howitzer, and mortar parts, it may take several years from the time a new machine is requested to the time the machine is put into operation.

The Arsenal has also looked at ways to make this replacement process -- which truly involves an art and science due to the challenges of bringing on new technology into the same footprint that existed for mature machines -- as another means for the Arsenal to reduce its cost of operation.

Frank Salvatore, a project manager for Kardas for the replacement of machines on the production floors, said the Arsenal saved nearly $300,000 in installation costs in 2012 by working with vendors to build machines that will use existing foundations. Prior to this new process, the Arsenal would completely replace former foundations to accommodate new machines. The Arsenal now requires vendors that will build the new machines to accommodate as much of the existing foundation as possible, which not only saves the Arsenal money but also reduces the time to bring a new capability on line.

And so, while many in the Department of Defense are waiting for news regarding how future budget cuts will affect them, at a small Army post in upstate New York the Watervliet Arsenal is not waiting. It has learned from the last big rounds of budget cuts in the 1990s and has already taken prudent actions to provide stability to its workforce, efficiency to its manufacturing quality, and improved quality to the Soldier.

"We don't know what will come out of future budge decisions and how those decisions may affect the Arsenal," Migaleddi said. "But what we do know is that we have a mission to do and we trust that the Army will get this right."

CIP allows the Army's manufacturing center at Watervliet to upgrade and modernize its equipment and infrastructure. There are three categories of CIP funding: capital equipment; minor construction; and automated data processing equipment.

Capital equipment includes such projects as purchasing new boring machines or to rebuild an existing machine. Minor construction may upgrade the Arsenal's infrastructure such as replacing power substations and underground electrical cabling. The third category is basically to purchase computer hardware and software to support the manufacturing mission.

The Watervliet Arsenal (pronounced water-vleet") is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility located in Watervliet, New York. The Arsenal is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States, having begun operations during the War of 1812.

Today's Arsenal is relied upon by U.S. and foreign militaries to produce the most advanced, high tech, high powered weaponry for cannon, howitzer, and mortar systems. This National Historic Registered Landmark has an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $90 million.

Page last updated Thu January 24th, 2013 at 09:15