Nicole Gaudiano: ngaudiano@gannett.com

With military officials pushing for a new round of base closings, new concerns are being raised about whether Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst could be targeted for shutdown.

Another concern is the future of the KC-10 refueling tankers — which account for two-thirds of the base’s flying mission. The fleet would likely be among those assets considered for elimination if another round of sequestration cuts take place.

“The real world impact of those choices on current U.S. military operations would be significant,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last Wednesday.

As a result, protecting Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey’s second-largest employer, will be a main focus for three New Jersey lawmakers as they begin work on the House Armed Services Committee this Congress.

Freshmen Reps. Donald Norcross, a Democrat, and Tom MacArthur, a Republican, will join 11th-term Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican, as members of the committee charged with developing military policy, setting funding levels and overseeing military operations.

They say preserving the mission of the Joint Base in Burlington and Ocean counties will be a priority as military officials push for another round of base closures and as budget cuts threaten the base’s fleet of 32 KC-10 refueling tankers. The three members landed on the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the tankers, the committee announced this week.

The Joint Base injects almost $7 billion into the economy, employs more than 40,000 and supports 65,500 indirect jobs, according to the New Jersey Defense Enhancement Coalition.

The three bases that make up the joint base — Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst — were targeted during the last round of base closings in 2005. That round led to the shutdown of Fort Monmouth in Eatontown. The three bases were merged to become the Joint Base in 2009.

Michael Lahr, a Rutgers University professor who has studied the economic impact, said the big concern is Lakehurst, since many of its jobs are technical and the employees are highly paid.

But the facility losing any part of the joint base’s operation would fall into a troubling pattern. New Jersey gets back about 75 cents for every $1 in taxes it sends to Washington.

“New Jersey is one of a handful of states that just doesn’t get its money back,” Lahr said.

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal 2016, released Monday, funds the KC-10 fleet. But if Congress doesn’t act, across-the-board budget cuts known as “sequestration” will take effect, which could jeopardize the KC-10s.

Retirement of the KC-10s would have a significant impact on the Joint Base, said retired U.S. Army Col. Mike Warner, a former Fort Dix commander.

Warner said one concern is that the Air Force will force crews to retrain twice by deactivating the KC-10s, replacing them temporarily with another older aircraft — the KC-135 aerial refueling tanker — and eventually replacing them with the new tankers.

But the greater concern is that, as assets are moved, the base’s overall refueling mission could be jeopardized, said Warner, who helped form the New Jersey Defense Enhancement Coalition. The coalition, a group of community leaders and retired military officials who support the Joint Base, wants the lawmakers to press the Air Force to replace the KC-10s with new KC-46As, skipping the intermediate step.

“The concern is, when you start doing all this stuff, there will be a lot of people fighting for resources,” he said.

MacArthur said he made three or more trips to Washington before taking office to meet with Republican leaders to make his case for a committee seat. One of his goals is to ensure that, when the Air Force eventually retires KC-10s, each plane will be replaced with a new Boeing KC-46A tanker, he said. Those planes are still being tested.

“There’s no decline or reduction in our mission,” said MacArthur, of Toms River. “It goes past the base. It goes to national security.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., whose district includes part of the base, urged Obama in a December letter — before the president’s visit to the base last month — to “reject this misguided proposal” of phasing out the KC-10s in his next budget request.

Congress has denied Pentagon requests for additional rounds of base closures and realignment, but New Jersey lawmakers say they’re on guard and will be vocal in opposing such a move. Another request for base closures was included in the Defense Department’s 2016 budget proposal released Monday.

“We want to make sure that we do our homework to show the assets that the Joint Base has, and more importantly, how well they do operate there,” said Norcross, of Camden, whose district is home to many base employees.

LoBiondo serves on the Readiness Subcommittee, which oversees the base realignment and closure process. He said New Jersey lawmakers’ bipartisan opposition to base closures is more important than ever so that the administration will know “the outcry will be so strong and so loud from both sides that they will not be able to sustain a stupid decision like that.”

LoBiondo said a priority for him is ensuring the fighter jets at the Atlantic City Air National Guard Base have their service lives fully extended and have updated technology that can integrate with Air Force jets. If planes aren’t compatible, he said, their mission becomes less relevant.

“These are a lot of the things that I worry about on a regular basis,” he said.

New Jersey has previously had three members on the House Armed Services Committee. Both Norcross and MacArthur’s predecessors were members.

While Norcross and MacArthur are both new to Congress, Warner said the seniority of other state lawmakers — including LoBiondo, Smith, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen — can help when it comes to lobbying for the state’s military installations. Frelinghuysen chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security and Defense.

“We’ve got the people that can fight the fight for us with our whole delegation,” Warner said.

Nicole Gaudiano: ngaudiano@gannett.com

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