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Soldiering on in Natick

New commander pushing his vision to ensure Army research base's survival

NATICK -- A new commander takes up his post next week here at the US Army Soldier Systems Center, a research site that recently survived the Pentagon's base closing and realignment moves.

But even before Brigadier General R. Mark Brown, 51, formally assumes command of the center, the only active-duty Army installation in New England, he is setting forth ambitious goals for his stewardship of a base that traditionally has been responsible for developing rations, clothing, shelters, and air-drop systems for the Army's fighters.

Brown will seek to strengthen ties with Boston-area businesses and universities, and accelerate technology transfer in and out of the base. He'll also work to hammer out a new strategic vision to harness the region's resources and position the 2,000-person soldier systems center to capitalize on the Pentagon's new war-fighting strategy with initiatives like its high-tech Future Force Warrior program.

His aim is to keep the local Army complex off future lists assembled by Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, planners. ``When the BRAC comes around again, as it inevitably will, I don't even want Natick to be in the discussion," Brown said during a visit to the site prior to the July 25 assumption-of-command ceremony at the soldier center.

The center, together with Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, another research-oriented facility, was targeted for closing in the most recent BRAC round. Both sites dodged the bullet last summer after a coalition of state business and government leaders, including Republican Governor Mitt Romney and Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy , successfully argued that the two bases let the Pentagon tap into the brainpower and intellectual capital of the region's academic research labs and high-technology industry.

A group emerging from that lobbying effort, the Massachusetts Defense Technology Initiative, based in Waltham, is working to build on the momentum of the campaign to save the research bases by helping them expand their operations and their economic impact in the state. Aiding in that effort is a $200,000 planning grant awarded by the quasi-public John Adams Innovation Institute last month to set up a technology collaboration center at the soldier systems center.

Alan J. Macdonald , the initiative's executive director, conceded Massachusetts lags behind states like Maryland, Georgia, Florida, and Texas in providing public-private support for military bases. With Brown's arrival, however, he thinks Massachusetts can ramp up.

``Natick is already tremendously important to the region and it has the potential to be even more of a driver of economic activity," Macdonald said. ``There is a great post-BRAC opportunity to look at a new defining strategic vision for the base and its contribution to military capability. A fundamental priority of the military is finding ways to improve communications and acquiring, analyzing, and using information in an actionable manner in the combat environment.

``Massachusetts is the perfect place to do that," he said, ``because it has the greatest depth of relevant technology in the world."

Some of that technology was on display at the Textron Systems plant in Wilmington in February, when Army officials demonstrated a variety of weapons and communications technology, some of it built by Textron, Burlington's iRobot Corp., and other defense contractors, that will be part of its estimated $120 billion Future Combat Systems program over the next quarter-century. Feeding into that system will be the Future Force Warrior program under development in Natick.

That program draws on the expertise and heritage of the Army Soldier Systems Center in fielding uniforms, helmets, and equipment, but embeds them with more adaptable fabrics, stronger composite materials, and sensors that connect soldiers and their equipment with a network of manned and unmanned air and ground systems, intelligent munitions, unattended ground sensors, and soldiers from other far-flung units.

While that and other projects, from parachute delivery systems to Hooah energy bars, will keep researchers here busy for years, the base's relatively small size poses a challenge for expansion. The base has 124 buildings on 78 acres, giving it a campus-like feel, but it is tiny compared with the Army's giant training bases and it's hemmed in by Lake Cochituate and nearby development. Any expansion would have to be upward, adding floors to existing structures.

Nonetheless, both Brown and Macdonald want to deepen the base's ties with business and university labs and incorporate outside research in fields like nanotechnology, materials, and composites into the base's development programs. The center employs about 1,100 civilians, 750 contractors, and about 150 military personnel, mostly soldiers who volunteer to test its uniforms and equipment.

Brown, a West Point graduate and son of an Air Force officer, who grew up on military bases around the country and abroad, said he will also work to forge stronger relations with the outside community, including local and state government leaders and entrepreneurs interested in commercializing its technology. Past examples of technology transfer from the base range from Gore-Tex material to MRE (meals ready to eat) pouches and pocket sandwiches.

``My role is to be the uniformed face of the Army in New England," said Brown, noting that the service's first battles were fought here at Lexington and Concord.

``We can not afford to not be in New England. I think if you asked soldiers, eight out of 10 would say New England is on the liberal side. But we serve the country so New Englanders can think the way they want to think, and that's OK."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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