PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- Brig. Gen. Alfred F. Abramson III has a unique perspective on the landscape of activities and changes over time at Picatinny Arsenal since he first arrived.
The Army’s drive toward modernization has infused Picatinny Arsenal with a significant role in that initiative, given that the Arsenal develops 90 percent of the Army's armaments and ammunition, a description that only hints at the full spectrum of development activity.
Even though Abramson relinquished his duties to Brig. Gen. Vincent F. Malone II during a unique Change of Charter Ceremony on May 14, Abramson’s imprint on the installation will be remembered.
At Picatinny, Abramson served as head of the Joint Program Executive Office for Armaments and Ammunition, an organization with a key role in the Army modernization with its broad scope of responsibilities and systems that deliver lethal armaments and ammunition to warfighters.
The partnership between Abramson’s organization and the largest tenant at Picatinny, the Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center, serves as the basis for Picatinny’s designation as the Joint Center of Excellence for Lethality.
In an interview earlier this years as he neared retirement, Abramson said that over the past 18 months to two years the Army’s push to achieve modernization has brought heightened activity to the Picatinny workforce.
“I think there is a significant uptick in the workload coming through the front gate of Picatinny due to the speed of the acquisition process,” the general said. “It's not a bow wave, it's a tidal wave of activities, and the challenge is applying resources, dollars and manpower to get after those high priority programs for the Army.”
In addition to leading the Joint Program Executive Office, Abramson also served as Senior Mission Commander of the installation, a role in which he has been neither detached nor aloof, making him a familiar figure at a wide range of Picatinny events.
Examples include meeting with veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, attending the annual Menorah Lighting, delivering a video holiday greeting with his wife, Pamela, volunteering to get soaked for a good cause at the dunk tank during Picatinny Community Day, posing for a photo with a STEM robotics team, and joining a ritual dance during a celebration of Native American Heritage Month.
One event with special resonance for Abramson is the annual recognition and commemoration of New Jersey fallen service members. “When we have that event every year, it really is not only one of my greatest honors to be part of that program, but to see the Gold Star families come back and play a part in us recognizing those service members from New Jersey that gave the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of our nation.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of Abramson's planned retirement ceremony and luncheon, originally scheduled for early May. Nonetheless, a caravan of vehicles lined up at Picatinny on April 8 for an impromptu farewell parade to honor Abramson and his wife, Pamela. Those present were urged not to get out of their vehicles so as to continue practicing social distancing.
"Despite these unusual circumstances, Team Picatinny's employees and residents want to honor the Abramsons for their incredible service to Picatinny Arsenal, the community and our great nation," Lt. Col. Samuel Morgan, Picatinny Arsenal Garrison Commander, told the community in an email message earlier that day. "For those that cannot join us, make a boisterous noise wherever you are," he added.
When photos of the event were posted on the Picatinny Facebook page, the post received more than 300 “likes” along with a string of heartfelt comments from well-wishers:
“Best wishes to you and your family! So sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye in person….You are one of a kind, a true leader!...Awesome leader, while working for him I learned a lot and revamped my own leadership style.…Awesome tribute to a kind & inspiring leader. We were blessed to have you….Best of luck on your next adventure BG A & Mrs. Abramson!! I will miss you!! Wish we could have been there.”
To show his appreciation, Abramson posted to his Twitter account: “In the midst of these unprecedented times, our Picatinny family comes together while physically staying apart. Pamela and I thank #PicatinnyArsenal for the Farewell/Retirement Parade. It has been an honor and privilege to serve alongside #TeamPicatinny.#ArmyStrong!”
Abramson first came to Picatinny as deputy to James Shields, then the Program Executive Officer for Ammunition. When Shields retired, Abramson was promoted into the top slot. To better reflect the scope of its mission, the organization’s name was changed to Joint Program Executive Office Armaments and Ammunition.
The joint office reports to the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Acquisition Logistics and Technology. It is comprised of four Project Management (PM) offices; PM Close Combat Systems, PM Combat Ammunition Systems, PM Maneuver Ammunition Systems, PM Towed Artillery Systems, and two Project Director (PD) offices: PD Joint Services and PD Joint Bombs.
Some of the better known programs of the office include the enhanced performance round, the Excalibur projectile, and Precision Guidance Kits for artillery rounds. Yet, also within the office, are products such as networked munitions, non-lethal systems and munitions, precision-guided and conventional munitions, mortar weapons systems, ammunition of various calibers and towed artillery systems.
Also within the organization, PD Joint Services serves as the Single Manager for Conventional Ammunition, providing conventional ammunition to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Although Soldiers in the field will typically see ammunition and armaments in their finished form, the amount of intricate, elaborate and interwoven activities within the JPEO that are required to supply the warfighter would appear daunting to outsiders.
Near- and long-term planning require careful calibration. For instance, Abramson directed, planned, and currently oversees execution of 200 separate modernization projects valued at $2.6 billion across the five government-owned, contractor-operated Army Ammunition Plants. These projects will increase production capacity, improve safety and environmental compliance, and ultimately result in a more robust ammunition enterprise.
“Al’s focus on building relationships and a strong team contributed immeasurably to JPEO A&A’s success in providing superior conventional and leap-ahead munitions to our warfighters at best value to the taxpayer,” said Dr. Bruce Jette, the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Acquisition Logistics and Technology. All Army Program Executive Offices report to Jette in his role as Army Acquisition Executive.
“I appreciated BG Abramson’s spirit and candor and valued his sound business judgment, technical expertise, and integrity,” Jette added. “He has done a superb job strengthening the link and solidifying the trust with the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines his JPEO serves, as well as the organic industrial base and partner nations.”
While Abramson’s organization is far-flung and complex, he had enough faith and trust in the commitment and expertise of his subordinates that he didn’t feel the need to cast a large shadow over every aspect of operations.
“We know what we're doing, and the skill set resides here,” Abramson said. “Al Abramson's focus was to let the smart folks run, if you will, and get after that capability.”
“Sometimes as new leaders, we want to understand what's happening, but there's a balance between understanding what's happening and slowing down the progress because we need to know what's happening,” Abramson said. “I need to have insight into what you're doing, but I don't want to necessarily have oversight on everything because if I have to have oversight on everything, then getting after those capabilities just takes a long time. And the folks are just truly dedicated and very patriotic.”
The atmosphere of mutual trust and respect does not go unnoticed within the organization. “On behalf of the JPEO community, thank you for your leadership and allowing us to be ‘comfortable being uncomfortable,’” said John Curran, who served as Abramson’s deputy.
For the general, his organization’s “Superbowl” is when it provides capability to the warfighter. One notable event that stands out for Abramson was an impressive test result at Yuma Proving Ground involving Extended Range Canon Artillery (ERCA).
“It is a significant accomplishment, that a whole host of folks were part of that process, to send a conventional munition 70 kilometers down range with precision. That's a lot, so that was great,” the general said, adding that it was a significant achievement not only for his organization but for the Armaments Center at Picatinny as well.
Within the Armaments Center, engineers from multiple competencies are responsible for the design, analysis, fabrication, integration, and testing of all aspects of the ERCA system.
As technical milestones propel progress, Abramson’s attention was also drawn to distinct challenges of Picatinny Arsenal itself as an installation. The nature of its mission has generated accelerated activity against the backdrop of Army modernization. Yet the amount of adequate space needed for people to carry out mission requirements has also strained the Arsenal, first established in 1880 as the Picatinny Powder Depot.
“Today, we do not have enough room to fit everyone on Picatinny, and that goes to the modernization efforts that the Amy is going after, which is a significant challenge but a good challenge that we're working through,” Abramson said.
“I'm really concerned about our ability to find seats for everybody on the installation,” Abramson added, saying funding is needed to build, tear down or repurpose buildings that are dilapidated or uninhabitable. He noted that the Garrison team has led efforts to determine what Picatinny should look like, not only in the next five to 10 years, but over the next 25 years.
The general praised New Jersey’s congressional delegation for its role in securing funding for a new Explosive Ordnance Disposal facility, but sees continued congressional support as vital to ensure that Picatinny can modernize its infrastructure to keep pace with, and support, future mission requirements.
Abramson expressed optimism about the future of Picatinny, citing what he called the extreme support and loyalty not only from the congressional delegation, but from the surrounding local communities and the workforce that represents the 24 tenant organizations on the Arsenal. “I just really haven't seen that collectiveness,” he said, ”and getting after and supporting and providing capabilities for our nation's war fighter is really tremendous, and it's been an honor to be part of that process.”
It has been 30 years since Abramson was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Chemical Corps after graduating from Virginia State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. For the Abramson family, the coronavirus pandemic has created a cloud of uncertainty about the timing of future events. But the general does know that he would get bored if he retired completely, so some kind of follow-on employment would be likely.
Looking back on his time Picatinny, Abramson has a buoyant summation of his experience at the Arsenal.
“I really appreciate how both the workforce and the organizations have wrapped their arms around both Pamela and I, and inculcated us into not only the culture, but into the families. Because what happens is, you spend more time with your family, your teammates at work, than you actually do at home, or at least I did. Most of us do. And so really, although it is a job, because you spend so much time together, you become a team, you become a family. And so I cannot state it enough of how honored and privileged I feel just to be part of not only the installation, but the organization. And it has made me, I think, a better person for it.”