Twitter Facebook Google RSS

Battered Communications Gear Boosts Business at Army Depot 


By Harold Kennedy 

Repairing military communications gear and sensor systems that have suffered harsh treatment in Iraq and Afghanistan has become a growth industry for Pennsylvania’s Tobyhanna Army Depot.

At a time when military installations nationwide brace for potential shutdowns and layoffs resulting from an upcoming round of base closures, depot workers at Tobyhanna do not seem worried about job security, at least in the near term.

Tobyhanna, located near Scranton, Pa., is the only Defense Department facility that is dedicated to repairing and overhauling command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.

“We provide support for the total spectrum of C4ISR,” Col. Tracy L. Ellis, depot commander, told a National Defense reporter during a recent tour of the facility. “We repair, overhaul and rebuild everything from handheld radios to satellite communications systems.”

The equipment comes in sometimes right from the battlefield and is dirty, beaten and sometimes shot up, said Terrance M. Hora, director of the depot’s surveillance systems directorate. “When we finish with it, it looks and works like new.”

The bulk of Tobyhanna’s business, which amounts to $413 million a year, comes from the U.S. Army. Nearly 50 percent of it, $205 million, derives from the Army’s Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Another 7 percent, or $29 million, is provided by the Army Aviation and Missile Command, which is based at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.

Other services also are significant customers. A total of 37 percent of the depot’s work, $153 million, comes from the Air Force. The Navy and Marines account for 4.4 percent, or $18 million.

The depot’s priority projects are the AN/TPQ-36 and 37 Firefinder weapon-locating systems, Hora said. Firefinders are mobile radar systems that automatically detect, track and locate enemy mortars, artillery and rocket launchers. They then direct counter fire to neutralize the enemy positions. Firefinders can detect up to 10 targets simultaneously at a range of up to 24 kilometers.

Firefinder units, weighing 2,500 pounds apiece, are carried on a Humvee, a 2.5-ton truck or some other tactical vehicle.

Firefinders are considered “critical war-fighting systems” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hora said. But they are taking a beating from heavy use, desert heat, sandstorms and occasional roadside bombs. “We’ve received 70 to 90 units this past year,” Hora said.

In December, the original manufacturer, Thales-Raytheon Systems Co. of Fullerton, Calif., won a $66.2 million firm-fixed-price contract to deliver 3,500 spare parts to Tobyhanna through 2008.

To do the work, Tobyhanna has set up a moving assembly line operating around the clock.

Tobyhanna also tests and repairs electro-optic and night-vision scopes and goggles, including those used by soldiers and devices that are mounted on vehicles, as well as laser rangefinder and targeting systems for M1 and M60 tanks, and thermal imaging systems for tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

“We completely overhaul them,” said Branch Chief Joe Fantanarosa.

To keep the insides of the systems clear of debris that could obscure the lenses, the work is done in especially designed clean rooms. “The air in these rooms can have no more than 1,000 particles per cubic meter,” he said, adding that ordinary air has about 11,000 particles per cubic meter. The air in each room is changed every three minutes.

In 2004, Tobyhanna overhauled 200 sight units for Bradley fighting vehicles, Fantanarosa said. “When they come in, they’re pretty well battered,” he said. Technicians spend more than 120 hours on each one.

Fantanarosa declined to provide cost figures for this project. “I can’t give you a dollar amount,” he said. “If I did, then all of our competitors would know.” Public depots such as Tobyhanna traditionally have competed for business with private industry.

Both the Air Force and Navy send tactical missiles to Tobyhanna for repairs and overhaul, said Dave Lynn, acting chief of the Maverick Missile Branch. Included are the AGM-65 Maverick, which is used by both services, and the Navy’s AGM-84 Standoff Land Attack Missile. The Maverick is a tactical, air-to-surface guided missile. The SLAM also is an air-launched weapon that can strike both land targets, such as bunkers and tanks, as well as ships at sea.

“We mostly overhaul the guidance and control systems,” he said.

The missiles that come in for repairs have never been fired, but every time they are attached to an aircraft flying a sortie their guidance and control system is activated and suffers wear and tear from the air velocity and the sand and salt in the environment, Lynn said.

Particularly vulnerable, he said, is the quarter-inch-thick glass dome that houses the system. “It has to be clear enough for the technology to see where it is going,” Lynn said.

Tobyhanna also works on military communications equipment, said Alan Bucklaw, the depot’s director of communications systems.

“We do everything from handheld radios to large communications vans,” Bucklaw said. “It ranges from old legacy systems to the latest digital technology.”

The depot has trimmed the time needed to repair communications systems by an average of 20 percent, Bucklaw said. The changes have helped reduce the cost of fixing the power supply for the video display unit for the Apache helicopter from $10,000 to $2,000 per unit, he said.

One of the largest pieces of equipment repaired at Tobyhanna is the aging ground mobile forces satellite terminal, which links tactical operations centers to major command posts. This system is so large that it requires two C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft to deliver the terminal, large satellite dish and truck that carries the system on the ground.

“We’re taking what was old technology in the 1980s and ‘90s and upgrading it to last at least another 20 years,” said Hora.

Another task at the depot is refurbishing equipment and supply vans. “They’re in bad shape when they come in here,” said Robert Lamanna, Tobyhanna’s business development manager. “We take them and tear them down to the frames and build them back up. We put in new counter tops, took racks and work benches.” Pointing inside one van, he noted: “That’s real butcher block—not laminate.”

A large part of repairing equipment after it returns from Iraq and Afghanistan is removing the dust and dirt, Hora said. “We do what we call ‘power washing,’” he explained. That involves using high pressure to spray equipment with a powerful chemical solution.

“But you’ve got to watch what you’re doing,” Hora said. “We had a guy use the wrong solution on one piece of equipment, and it melted some cables on it.”

When a specific item or spare part can’t be bought, it can be manufactured at the depot, said Frank Belon, a mechanical engineer. Recently, for example, the depot designed an ultra-rugged rack to fit on top of Humvees. The rack can carry up to 1,000 pounds in payload.

The pace of work at the depot has picked up significantly since the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ellis said. To keep up, the depot has added 1,600 employees since 2000, bringing the total to about 4,300, he said. Another 500 to 600 are likely to be hired this year.

In addition, Ellis said, the depot has hired 636 temporary contractors to help deal with the growing workload. “They have no expectation of long-term employment, he explained. “When the surge is over, we’ll let them go.”

Tobyhanna recruits its new employees—permanent and temporary—from a number of nearby universities, colleges, community colleges and technical schools.

Tobyhanna is the largest employer in the Scranton region, whose economy is transitioning from a heavy emphasis on coal mining to electronics, service industries, tourism and recreation. “We are the employer of choice in this area,” Ellis said.

To prepare its new hires for their high-tech work and to keep its older employees up to snuff, Tobyhanna runs its own electronics school. It also operates one of two regional training facilities for the Army Reserve and National Guard. The other is in San Francisco.

At Tobyhanna, guardsmen and reservists from all over the eastern United States learn 23 job specialties, including radio operation, communications security repair and multi-channel transmission.

To find space for its growing workload, the depot has been expanding and modernizing its facilities. It sits on 1,296 acres of land that was originally set aside in 1912 as a field-artillery training site and was converted into a communications electronics depot in 1953.

In recent years, most of its huge warehouses—each one an acre in size with 38-feet-high ceilings—have been turned into manufacturing sites.

In 2003, Tobyhanna completed a new $30 million, 91,000 square-foot industrial operations facility designed to refinish component parts used in communications electronic systems. The facility consolidates paint, plating, sandblast, ultrasonic cleaning, steam cleaning and the depot’s chemistry laboratory into a single, integrated and centralized operation.

Many of the depot’s buildings are linked by a system of underground tunnels that were built as a civil-defense measure during the early days of the Cold War. The tunnels make it possible for workers to reach about 80 percent of the depot’s operations without going outside.

Tobyhanna officials and their counterparts in state and local government are watching intently the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process. Although reluctant to comment for the record, Tobyhanna officials seemed quietly confident about their installation’s chances of surviving the process. “I believe we have something to offer the war fighter,” Ellis said. He noted that in every previous BRAC, Tobyhanna gained functions, rather than losing them.

  Bookmark and Share