Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia brings 40% of force back from teleworking

By CATHY DYSON | The Free Lance-Star | Published: October 14, 2020

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FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (Tribune News Service) — In the early days of the pandemic, all but 8% of the workforce from the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren was sent home to do their jobs.

Those who came onto the King George County base did so because they needed access to classified documents and systems, said Capt. Casey Plew, commander of the warfare center’s Dahlgren division.

“We have remained open for business,” Plew told the King George Board of Supervisors last week. “We must remain fully operational; it is our mission.”

Since March, the warfare center, one of the largest commands at the Navy Support Facility Dahlgren, has put protocols in place so workers can return to their offices and laboratories “while avoiding additional COVID-19 case impacts,” he said.

About 40% of the center’s employees have returned to the base during the first phase of the Navy’s plan to bring workers back. Plew stressed the numbers pertain to the NSWC only, not other commands on the Dahlgren base. Workers have returned based on their missions, not a mandated number, and he said the first phase will continue until external factors, such as openings of child-care centers and schools, allow more workers to come back.

There have been cases of COVID-19 within the warfare center, but the Navy doesn’t release the number of people infected because of “operational security” concerns, said Alan Black, director of corporate communications at the warfare center.

“While there have been reports of positive COVID-19 cases, there has been no impact to our mission,” Black said. “We are closely monitoring local, state and national COVID reporting and continue to follow all mitigation guidance.”

Black added that the Dahlgren division is enforcing physical distancing, minimizing group gatherings, wearing personal protective equipment and cleaning extensively.

Throughout the U.S. Navy, there have been 15,877 cases of the virus and 27 deaths, according to the Navy’s COVID-19 website. Of the total cases, 14,482 people have recovered from their illnesses.

During his presentation to the King George board, Plew stressed the need for open communication between the base and the community around it. Supervisors thanked him for that openness, as well as “for your involvement within the community,” said Supervisor Richard Granger.

Residents who live or drive along State Route 206, the main thoroughfare to the Navy base, probably are enjoying the “wonderful traffic situation” without the congestion of daily commuters, said Supervisor Jeff Bueche.

But he acknowledged what helps some hurts others; King George gas stations and restaurants are losing revenue as a result of fewer workers being at the base.

“While I understand you guys are doing great work and making great strides with teleworking, eventually, I do look forward to you guys getting back at full strength,” Bueche said.

Even when the base puts in place its third and final phase of returned workers, some contractors and financial specialists may opt to continue working from home, Plew said.

“We find that to be a good thing,” he said. “We think teleworking is a great option for our community in the future.”

Plew also acknowledged the impact the Navy base has on King George and the community around it. It is King George’s largest employer as about 2,000 of the more than 11,000 civilians and Navy personnel, scientists and engineers, live in the county.

In fiscal 2019, Navy Support Facility Dahlgren saw a sharp increase in local contracts for products or technical assistance to support the many scientific and military missions that focus not only on missiles and naval warfare systems, but responses for all branches of the armed forces. Contracts in 2019 totaled $775 million, up from $472 million the previous year for the 5,047 contractors associated with the base.

“That boom that you hear down the river, that is us,” Plew said in his remarks to county officials, referring to the NSWCDD as the “premier Navy research and development center” in the nation. “Our test range is active. And we maintain the intellectual strength of our surface fleet and their weapons systems.”

The warfare center continues to grow; it hired 580 workers above attrition this year alone, Plew said. More than 80% of the center’s workforce have degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, and the commander said the base continues to have programs and workshops—currently virtual ones—to develop those skills among local students.

He cited the advancements Dahlgren had brought to the military in its 102 years of operations.

It brought the fusing of atomic bombs as well as the Norden bombsight, which allowed the Navy and Army Air Force to pinpoint accuracy during bombing runs from World War II to the Vietnam War. With the work of Gladys West and others, the NSWCDD brought about the development of the Global Positioning System during the Cold War.

This year, the warfare center delivered lasers to ships and is developing hypervelocity projectiles that may be able to knock incoming cruise missiles right out of the sky. Tests last month in New Mexico intercepted target drones, meant to simulate Russian missiles, on ranges in in New Mexico, the commander said.

“Financially, we are set and technically, we are in a good position for the future for another 102 years,” Plew said. “That said, we do know it is the relationship with our community that makes it all possible.”

©2020 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

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