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'Magnet for high tech:' How research drives Wright-Patterson's $15.5B impact

Michael Collier, a biomedical engineer intern sets up an equipment test at the 711th Human Performance Wing on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Sept. 18, 2018.

JIM VARHEGYI/U.S. AIR FORCE

By LYNN HULSEY | Dayton Daily News | Published: April 3, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is the Dayton region’s largest employer, an economic powerhouse integral to national defense that also attracts a trove of intellectual capital and expertise in high-tech research and development.

That work is done on base, at local companies and in labs at colleges and universities. It not only provides well-paying jobs to local residents, it’s a selling point to lure new businesses and jobs.

“Wright-Patt is a world-class technology center. It’s like a magnet for high tech,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer and military analyst at Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va. “It is the intellectual capital of the modern Air Force.”

Having that concentrated hub here provides powerful protection for the base’s existing missions and is a boost to its efforts to win more work, Thompson and others said.

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward initiative seeks solutions to the most pressing issues in our community, including making sure our region is prepared for the economy of the future. This story digs into why the base is so critical to our economy and how it can continue to grow. On Monday, we examine what the community must do to protect those assets.

“The base is in better shape than I’ve ever seen it before,” said retired U.S. Rep. Dave Hobson, whose district included Greene County and Wright-Patt and was in office during the last round of base closures known as BRAC.

No BRAC is likely looming. But local leaders say they must remain vigilant to guard against threats to Wright-Patt and win new missions.

That means emphasizing and enhancing the base’s military value, the top priority for any military installation. It also involves community support for the base, strong local schools, a skilled workforce and state laws on things like professional licensing laws that ease transitions for frequently uprooted military families.

“We can’t take our eye off the ball,” said Jeff Hoagland, president and chief executive of the Dayton Development Coalition, which leads the annual community fly-in to Washington D.C. to discuss regional priorities like the base with lawmakers.

 

What’s Wright-Patt’s economic impact?

Wright-Patt’s roots lie with the Wright Brothers. They flew their airplanes and trained military pilots at the Huffman Prairie Flying Field. After World War I the community convinced the War Department to build an engineering division here, raising money to buy land that remains part of Wright-Patt.

The base sprawls across 13 square miles in Greene and Montgomery counties. It houses more than 100 units, including the U.S. Air Force Materiel Command, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center and the Air Force Reserve’s 445th Airlift Wing, which operates the huge C-17 Globemaster III transport planes seen flying over Dayton.

Wright-Patt performs critical work in weapons systems and aircraft acquisition, research and development, and logistics, as well as education and intelligence gathering. The base is also home to Wright-Patterson Medical Center, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps Military Police Company C and the Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton.

About 29,300 people work at the base, making it Ohio’s largest single-site employer. About 8,000 workers there are active duty or reserve military and the rest civilians.

The direct, indirect and induced economic impact of Wright-Patt totals $15.54 billion in the 14-county Dayton region, according to a recent economic analysis commissioned by the Dayton Development Coalition. That includes $965 million in direct expenditures in the region from contracts.

“The impact of the base is clearly not just economic, although the economic impact is tremendous,” said U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy. “And it multiplies out through the whole supply chain and, frankly, bigger than a normal base, because of the contracting activity that is there, the diverse mission set that’s there. But it is also cultural and social as well.”

The state’s other federal installations include the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Springfield Air National Guard Base, NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and multiple other defense centers and agencies. Together the state’s federal installations have a collective payroll of more than $5 billion and account for 60,000 federal jobs and about 50,000 related private sector jobs, according to an August report by the Ohio BRAC and Military Affairs Task Force.

The task force recommended hiring someone to focus on Ohio’s military and aerospace installations. Gov. Mike DeWine appointed retired U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph E. Zeis Jr. of Centerville last month as senior adviser for aerospace and defense.

Zeis, who formerly worked for the Dayton Development Coalition, said he will work to protect and increase the military value of the federal installations and boost the portfolios of research institutions, attract more aerospace companies to Ohio and support workforce training.

U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and the region’s Congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Mike Turner of Dayton, pushed to get $182 million for a new facility for the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patt. They also say they will fight to protect $61 million appropriated for the project from being diverted to a border wall under President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration.

Portman, Brown and Turner led the effort to get Wright-Patt selected as the Air Force’s preferred site for the F-35 Hybrid Product Support Integrator Organization, which involves support services for the F-35 Lightning II single-seat stealth fighter jet. Officials hope the decision is finalized before U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson leaves in May to take a university job.

“Secretary Wilson recognized that the base, and the greater Dayton area, provide a unique environment to enable our service members and civilians to continue meeting our national security needs,” Brown said. “The new mission will mean at least 400 jobs in Ohio, with the possibility of more to come, and will continue to grow the critical acquisition and technical expertise in the Miami Valley.”

He called Wright-Patt “the jewel of the Air Force” and added, “There are few research facilities like it in the country, military or otherwise.”

Brown, Portman and Davidson all said the Dayton Development Coalition and a broad group of Dayton community leaders are effective advocates for Wright-Patt.

“We all come together. There are partisan moments, but by and large, there isn’t on this,” Brown said.

Wright-Patt is especially important, Portman said, both because of the nature of the cutting-edge research there and the “reservoir of smart people, intellectual capital” that that work attracts.

“Wright-Patt is a national leader in providing our warfighters the support they need, not only to fight and win the battles of today but also prepare for the threats of tomorrow,” Portman said. “It helps us attract that level of expertise and researchers and highly sophisticated analysts. All that’s good. And some people retire and choose to stay in the Dayton area and that’s also been good for our businesses.”

Turner didn’t respond to requests for comment.

 

How local businesses use military tech

The federal government is increasingly interested in commercializing military technological advances, said Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

“There is a recognition that commercial use can make technology advance faster and make the industrial base more resilient for supporting military activity,” Thompson said. “So much federal technology money gets pumped into Wright-Patt, there’s an opportunity to develop academic research centers, tech start-ups and other spin offs from the base.”

Scott Koorndyk, president of The Entrepreneur Center in Dayton, has 14 companies in the TEC portfolio using Air Force-developed technology.

“Every day we work with entrepreneurs to take those raw technologies that we as taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to do research on and we find commercial uses for those technologies,” Koorndyk said. “If you want to protect the mission of the Air Force, build an ecosystem, build an infrastructure, that is supportive of taking the research they’ve done, commercializing it and putting it in the hands of the warfighter.”

Nick Ripplinger’s Battle Sight Technologies is one of those startups. Battle Sight uses licensed technology patented at Wright-Patt to produce CrayTac, a wax-based product that writes in the infrared spectrum and only can be seen with night-vision goggles. Ripplinger, an Army veteran and member of the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board, said the product allows military, first responders and others to communicate in low-light or no light conditions.

He wished he had CrayTac during his tour in Iraq when soldiers resorted to cutting the tips off glow sticks to mark buildings or write messages.

“It’s such an amazing opportunity to be able to grow our business while supporting the greatest customer in the world, the American warfighter,” he said.

Another company, NanoSperse in Kettering, was created to commercialize advanced materials nanotechnology developed by the University of Dayton Research Institute under contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory, said Pamela Gregg, spokeswoman for UDRI.

UD performed nearly $150 million in sponsored research in fiscal year 2018, most at UDRI. The university ranks first in the nation among colleges and universities for federally sponsored research and development in materials engineering. It was “doing nanomaterials before that became a buzzword,” UDRI Director John E. Leland said.

UDRI now is working on building aircraft parts using 3-D printing and digital processing technology to develop and test parts for aging military aircraft to replace parts that might no longer be available.

“These days more and more we are doing work for the Air Force to help it modernize its maintenance technologies and maintenance practices,” Leland said.

Another Air Force project involves the development of aircraft operating at hypersonic speeds, which creates intense heat and other issues.

“It’s an extremely challenging area that is one of the Air Force Research Lab’s top three priorities. And we are assisting them in developing new materials, new manufacturing processes, to enable hypersonic,” Leland said.

Wright-Patt attracts “talent to the region that otherwise would not be here,” Leland said, something he believes is essential to Dayton’s future.

“And then companies stand up to support these government operations and they bring more talent to Dayton. And then create an environment where people in these unique fields have multiple choices of employers to come to Dayton,” Leland said.

“What makes Silicon Valley and the Boston area so vibrant is the fact that people have the ability to move around within their technical field and work on the most exciting things,” he said. “And that attracts more talent, which lets you do more of that. And so I think we are beginning to create that kind of environment here in Dayton.”

That, in turn, creates what Leland calls a symbiotic relationship with universities.

“Once you have that talent in the region, you can begin developing coursework and degrees focused in that industry area, so that you can use experts from the region to teach as adjunct faculty, produce more people in these areas so that the future supply of employees for these jobs is strong and these jobs don’t go elsewhere,” Leland said.

A lot of local companies also win contracts that aren’t originated at Wright-Patt but are with other military branches or federal departments, said Maurice McDonald, the development coalition’s executive vice president for aerospace and defense.

“So we are talking about the results of having these installations here, but companies are also winning contracts across the country,” he said.

At Miami Valley Hospital military doctors serve on staff and are involved in training residents needing specific skill sets.

“We have been very fortunate to have many excellent ex-military physicians return to be on staff after having had their first exposure to Miami Valley Hospital while they were stationed at Wright-Patterson,” said Teresa Zryd, vice president of academic affairs and research at Premier Health.

Retired Col. Cassie Barlow, interim president of the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education, said that symbiotic relationship pays off for students of all ages, giving them a clear vision of the kind of jobs they can get if they study science, technology, engineering and math.

“They don’t have to go far to go into artificial intelligence or high-tech manufacturing and they can go to school for those things right in our backyard,” said Barlow, who retired in 2014 as commander of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patt.

“It’s definitely a win-win for all our secondary schools, as well as post-secondary,” said Barlow, who also is a member of the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board.

 

Winning new missions

No one the Dayton Daily News interviewed believes Wright-Patt is in danger of being closed. That’s in no small part because of the synergy between its missions and its focus on developing the weapons systems and aircraft of the future.

For example, the Air Force Materiel Command, which oversees multiple units at the base and across the country, does work that “is absolutely essential to the day-to-day operation of the Air Force, not just today but for the next 10, 20 years down the line,” said Daryl Mayer, Wright-Patt spokesman.

Congress hasn’t authorized a new BRAC and many observers don’t see one coming soon. But, Mayer said, the Pentagon can reassign missions or set up new ones such as the F-35 mission, a process called a “bed down.”

“You’re always being evaluated for bed down,” Mayer said.

In San Antonio, Brooks Air Force Base was ordered closed in the 2005 BRAC. That sent large chunks of its mission to Wright-Patt.

The Texas city then opened an office of military and veteran affairs to look out for the remaining four military bases known as Joint Base San Antonio.

“How do you BRAC-proof your installation? You add military value. They’re going to look at military value. They’re going to look at what bases are doing. They’re going to look at community support,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Juan G. Ayala, who directs the office in San Antonio. “You’ve got to advertise, you’ve got to campaign, and you’ve got to advocate that you have the capacity for new missions.”

©2019 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)
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