Q & A with Col. Lee H. Schiller Jr.
Commander of the Watervliet Arsenal
C&S: Military installations are generally considered to be major economic drivers for the communities they border. What do you see as the importance of the Watervliet Arsenal to its surrounding community?
LS: Who would have thought that, out of urgency and necessity to blunt the British invasion during the War of 1812, a small arsenal of highly skilled labor would still be standing 200 years later? In conversations with local community leaders, not one has been able to name any other business in New York’s Capital District that has been in continuous operation as long at the Watervliet Arsenal.
Since the Battle of New Orleans, Arsenal products have supported our nation’s troops at every military conflict from the landing at Vera Cruz to Gettysburg; to the Battles of the Marne and the Battle of the Bulge; to the frozen Korean tundra and the jungles of Vietnam; to Grenada and Panama; to Iraq; and today our products are in Afghanistan.
Today the Arsenal has nearly a $100 million annual economic impact to New York State and 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. The Arsenal’s workforce of just over 500 participated in nearly 70 community engagements in 2013 as a way of paying back the community for its 200 years of support.
Although the buildings and machinery have dramatically changed since that summer day in 1813, the one thing that has remained constant is the Arsenal’s ability to recruit and train highly skilled labor from the local community. Primarily for that reason the Arsenal remains in operation today.
C&S: With some veterans presumably returning to civilian life here in New York, what role do you expect the state to play in helping those veterans find jobs that fit their skills? Do you believe the state has played enough of a role in the past with helping returning veterans find jobs?
LS: The Arsenal was established more than 200 years ago by soldiers, and so we have a strong sense of duty and obligation to support our servicemen and -women whether or not they still wear our country’s uniform. Veterans have always been a part of our workforce, from performing duties as machinists to working budgets in resource management. And today nearly 43 percent of the Arsenal’s workforce is made up of veterans.
We enjoy a great relationship with state and local veteran advocacy groups and see a very active role they play in New York’s Capital District. Most of our 70 community engagements in 2013 were tied to veteran service organizations. Just recently, the state established a new initiative on the Arsenal that, once fully implemented, will assist veterans to start up a small business.
C&S: What are some of the difficulties of being in charge of a military installation at a time when the level of military funding has been a major point of debate for the federal government, as it has in recent years?
LS: The Arsenal worked very hard in fiscal year 2013 to operate within the framework of sequestration by reducing its cost structure through the implementation of a hiring freeze and a very limited, and heavily scrutinized, use of overtime to support the mission. These and other steps helped to reduce operating costs by more than $8 million in fiscal year 2013. For fiscal year 2014, the Arsenal will continue to lower its cost of operation by nearly $3 million through such actions as further reducing the size of its workforce, keeping tight control over overtime, and by using lean manufacturing activities to identify other operating expenses for reduction.
Although sequestration has not gone away, it may not be as painful as it was in 2013 due to the bipartisan two-year budget agreement passed by Congress that capped Defense Department funding at about $498 billion for fiscal year 2014, which ends this September.
Compound that budget shortfall with a planned withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the downsizing of Army force levels from about 540,000 soldiers to 490,000 by September 2015, [and] a rather uncertain future is painted for defense manufacturing beyond fiscal year 2014.
Quite simply, the U.S. military will become smaller and leaner, which is something that has happened after every military conflict since the American Revolutionary War. A smaller Army means that there will be fewer combat brigades to use many of the weapon systems the Arsenal manufacturers, such as cannons for tanks and howitzer systems, as well as various weapon parts. The Department of the Army has stated that up to 10 brigade combat teams may be inactivated over the next two years.
The Arsenal is looking very hard at how to make up some of the potential workload fallout by seeking public-private partnerships and by tapping into foreign military sales. In the meantime, the Arsenal will celebrate all contracts, no matter how small.