Congress has voted to reduce the defense budget by $500 billion over the next decade (the largest decrease since the drawdown at the end of World War II), with additional cuts approved for ancillary departments like Veterans Affairs.
Top military and political advisers are also recommending another round of base closures and consolidations.
With Fort Monmouth shuttered during the last base realignment and closure in 2005 and the joint base consolidating its three formerly independent units in 2009, threats to the military presence in New Jersey seem inevitable.
Last week, however, Gov. Christie lifted the mood when he signed an executive order creating a task force to issue recommendations to "preserve, enhance, and strengthen" New Jersey's military installations.
New Jersey will join other states that have organized a comprehensive approach to saving their military installations, including, in some cases, sending lobbyists to Washington. The governor's action gives supporters of the state's defense and aerospace industries another tool in their effort to make New Jersey one of the nation's leaders in this sector.
"There's no reason New Jersey can't set the global standard for aviation," said Ron Esposito, executive director of the Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor City.
He was among speakers at a conference hosted by PlanSmart NJ to explore these questions: "Is New Jersey taking its aerospace and defense industry for granted . . . at our peril? Can we make it hotter? And why should we care?"
As home to the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center - the agency's only facility for developing and testing technologies - New Jersey boasts a population whose avionics expertise already flies circles around everyone else's.
Industry boosters, including the chair of the House subcommittee on aviation, New Jersey Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo, are hoping to use this advantage to win one of six planned testing sites for drones. New Jersey is competing against 36 other states.
But because the main objective of the testing is to determine how to most safely integrate drones into the already crowded airspace, Hughes could prove the most natural fit. (The center is already home to the NextGen project, whose goal is to shorten the safe distance between in-flight aircraft.)
Talent also is in ready supply. The state boasts more scientists and engineers per square mile than anywhere else in the world.
And Lockheed Martin, which according to the latest Aerospace and Defense Intelligence Report spent $616 million last year on R&D, houses two of its primary systems centers in Burlington and Camden Counties.
Further, in April, Richard Stockton College and the Aviation Research and Technology Park signed a memorandum of understanding to hold formal discussions about the park's becoming an auxiliary of the college.
After years of delays in leasing a 400,000-square-foot center for aviation research and development, the potential partnership allows the project to move forward. At the same time, it helps the college develop academic and degree programs.
The center is expected to eventually generate 2,000 high-skill NextGen support jobs.
And If drone testing touches down in New Jersey, it's predicted to have $194.3 million in economic impact by 2025. With aviation making up 10 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, Col. Anthony LaSure, senior military adviser to the director of the Hughes Center, said, "As aviation goes, so goes the nation."
By the end of the current legislative session, New Jersey could become an even more welcoming place for aeronautical companies.
The Christie-endorsed Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 specifically targets aviation and defense companies for extra bonuses for locating new facilities or retaining full-time jobs inside an aviation zone instead of elsewhere in New Jersey. As written, the bill creates only one such zone: a one-mile radius around Atlantic City International Airport.
"I call this the Goldilocks Effect," said lawyer Ted Zangari, who chairs the Public Policy and Governmental Affairs Practice Group for the Princeton firm Sills, Cummins & Gross. "It's not too stingy, it's not too generous. I can say confidently it will be a rare occurrence where we sit awkwardly with a company telling the lieutenant governor that another governor is offering a larger pot of money. It'll be 'game over' for any company considering locating in another state."
The aviation district speaks to an increasingly popular concept in urban planning and job creation - the "regional innovation cluster."
PlanSmart NJ has designated aviation and defense as targeted growth industries, and New Jersey is seeking ways to encourage such companies to locate close together (sometimes even within the same tech center, business incubator, or accelerator facility).
While some clusters emerge organically or thanks to private interests, the proposed aviation zone is defined by government.
The aviation district abuts Stockton, which earns it the designation of an "innovation district." This is an area in which leaders at all levels of New Jersey government are learning to intensify efforts to encourage R&D relationships between university science and engineering programs and neighboring firms that apply lab procedures in the real world.
Conference panelist Shreekanth Mandayam spoke of the emerging defense cluster near Rowan University, which is concentrated in Rowan's South Jersey Technology Park, of which Mandayam is executive director.
Mandayam connects Rowan students with project-oriented internships at the park's 16 sponsored research labs, some of which emerged out of university initiatives.
His goal is to focus on defense firms, delivering $100 million in funding over the next decade and convincing them to hire his best students.
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