After U.S. Secretary of the Army John McHugh's first-ever visit to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center Thursday, he defended the facility as “valuable” and laid out an argument to protect it from another round of looming military cuts.
Although McHugh said he could not promise that any particular base or facility would be safe from cuts or closure, he touted the Natick center’s work as “enduring.”
“The work that is done here and the people here are essential for our soldiers, to keep them safe and comfortable,” McHugh said. “I can’t imagine that ever going away. I would say this location has value.”
McHugh said the close proximity to reputable universities like Tufts University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helps the base harness the best research brainpower.
He said if the 78-acre Natick campus was ever in a position to be cut, the facility “has a lot to argue in its favor.”
McHugh’s visit and comments comes six weeks after the Pentagon announced it would limit troops’ pay raises, increase health fees for military retirees, and close bases nationwide.
While state backers have been showcasing Hanscom Air Force Base’s part in the high-technology economy, the Natick center focuses on research for all things that soldiers come into contact with – from food quality to uniform safety, said John Harlow, chief of the center’s public affairs.
McHugh said he noted research on nutrition during his visit, admiring the work on making soldiers’ food not only healthy but flavorful.
“You don’t think about the work and research and analysis that goes into making sure we’re providing something the soldier wants to eat,” McHugh said. “You can pack all the nutrients you want into a pouch, but if a soldier doesn’t find it very palatable, they are not going eat it.”
McHugh also praised the research being done in Natick to reduce convoys in Afghanistan, a dangerous assignment for soldiers who accompany the supply trucks. One solution: cutting down on demand for the supplies ferried by the trucks.
He said the shower reuse systems being studied in Natick could substitute for 9,000 gallons of water per day per unit, and that high efficiency generators could replace up to 50 million gallons of fuel per year.
“That’s 55 trucks off the road – that’s soldier safety,” McHugh said. “A lot that we’re doing right now to make those savings and reduce those risks started right here.”
Harlow said the Natick facility led the way in redesigning the traditional woodland-print camouflage uniform that he himself used in the 1980s to a new pattern adapted specifically for the Middle East.
Currently, researchers are also studying the impacts of omega-3s in preventing joint aches and pains that usually accompany carrying large army bags or heavy materials, Harlow said.
Scientists are also working to improve precision air drops, where planes must swiftly deliver food, water, and other supplies to troops situated on risky mountaintops.
“The precision air drop has to be dead on the money,” he said, noting that the landscape can prove tough for soldiers to maneuver to retrieve supplies if the planes miss.
Harlow also said that the facility was researching how to make a better helmet, including observing concussions when the wearers receive head blows. He said the center has contracts with the NFL and NHL, sharing their research to make sports safer to play.
Harlow said that the bullet-proof vest developed at Natick has never failed.
He also mentioned that the base holds patents for widely-used products in the consumer marketplace, such as Tang, an orange juice drink that scientists helped develop for NASA astronauts, and GPS systems.
Harlow said that if the base did face cutbacks, he was not sure if the 1,800 employees would be relocated or out of work.
He said the base has existed since the 1950s, and that most employees – 1,200 of the 1,800 – hold advanced degrees.
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at email@example.com