Good things come in small packages.
That’s the mantra of Major Gen. Robert S. Ferrell, the new commanding general of Aberdeen Proving Ground, whose leadership, six months into his latest assignment with the U.S. Army, comes at a time when the suburban base has just completed a historic expansion under the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process.
At 5-feet-6-inches today, Ferrell recalled that he barely made it into the Army in 1977 when he was a 99-pound teenager, even though his family’s legacy in the service prompted him to apply as an 11th grader in Newark, N.J.
“I went to basic training and was told twice, ‘We’re going to send you home because we didn’t think you’re cut out for the military,” he said recently during a wide-ranging interview at The Daily Record about his new assignment and his goals at APG.
“At that time I told my drill sergeant, ‘I have a father that served in the Korean War, Vietnam War, a brother in the 82nd — how would I look as an Army reject?’”
Today, his chest decorated with bars and stars and other badges of high recognition — most notably the Bronze Star, the Defense Superior Service Medal and the Legion of Merit — Ferrell leads the Army’s CECOM, or Communications-Electronics Command, which oversees management of the Army’s battlefield-related communication systems worldwide.
Ferrell said his early challenges have motivated him through the years to advance in the military’s ranks. He has served in several units in the U.S. as well as in Korea and Europe, and was deployed to Iraq.
He tells a life story using the acronyms and bureaucratic lingo of military speak, but taken as a whole, it shows an evolution into the top gun’s office at APG on Feb. 9, months after 20,000 employees had set up shop on base following two years of BRAC moves. Many outside of Harford County are unaware of the total impact of BRAC on the region, he acknowledges.
Ferrell, 54, is an optimist, and he says that helps as he spends time monitoring Pentagon budget cuts as a way to stay nimble from a military standpoint to “be ready and positioned for the next conflict.”
He is looking to boost opportunities for returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and establish links with the community outside the base to help recruit a new generation of civilian and enlisted workers at APG. He is also dedicated to developing the next generation of military leaders through training.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce the gap of misunderstanding and provide more streamlining if you need something done on the installation,” he said. “My first snapshot of Aberdeen was ‘wow,’ because this is a great place to be. You’ve got a community that strongly supports the families and their workforce.”
Keystone for Defense Department
Ferrell said that APG is “viewed as the keystone” for the U.S. Department of Defense in five areas — the public health command, the Army test and evaluation command, the research and development command, the chemical and biological command, and the massive new cyber intelligence post, known in military speak as C-4ISR.
“With those five areas we said, OK, how do you stay relevant?” Ferrell said. “We are looking at programs in all of the areas, like in the medical command — we want to know how to prevent the spread of disease amongst the workforce. In test and evaluation, we are looking at off-the-shelf technology for the next conflict. We want to see how to test and evaluate those to put the best and the brightest equipment in the hands of our men and women.”
Several private defense contractors who have located offices inside and outside the APG gate over the past couple of years have set up research and development links with APG to cash in on BRAC-related technological development. Such alliances are also on Ferrell’s radar screen as he works to help keep the inventions — which range from tiny robotic devices to cyber spying tools — flowing under the newly established programs.
“We call it the Enhance, Use or Lease Program, or EUL,” Ferrell said, of the “tenant units” that total 80 at APG.
“There are 416 acres on APG that we have set aside in this EUL to where they are going to build out eventually over time a corporation-type headquarters on the installation. Right now there is the GATE community [located at the APG main gate, owned by St. John Properties Inc.] that has tenants from Boeing to Raytheon to SAIC. They’re on base, they’re with us, they’re embedded.
“This is the first time I’ve seen where an installation is working very closely with our industry partners, and I can only see goodness coming out of that.”
He is also working to form alliances with Harford County high schools, pushing a STEM, or a science, technology, engineering and math-centered curriculum, and with the University of Maryland and the University of Delaware to help establish training programs for young adults interested in possible military careers, both civilian and enlisted.
“We are partnering with 27 of the 54 local schools in the area, and I just had a town hall to encourage a larger participation,” Ferrell said of the outreach that he called crucial to the future of the APG BRAC efforts. “I’m working with the mayors as well as the schools… to see where there are opportunities to help and encourage because it’s a DOD push to see how we can acquire and develop the next STEM talent. So we’re out beating the bushes and trying to figure out what engagements, what opportunities” are there.
He said today’s teenagers are primed to take on high-tech careers because of their attraction to video games and computers.
“I find that they have a thirst for technology,” he said. “They have a desire to tinker, a desire to explore the unknown, the ones that, when I’m in the schools I’m very impressed with their energy to learn more about STEM. I have two sons and I grew up in the Nintendo age. At first I was pushing back against that, but I see now that was a blessing to get them more oriented in those smaller gadgets and more into the technical field that we offer at APG.”
At the college level, Ferrell said there is a need to establish programs for undergraduate students as well as continuing education opportunities for APG employees.
“As you look at our workforce at Aberdeen, I’m amazed. I pinched myself all the time, because of the talent that’s there,” he said. “We have the second largest installation of the number of Ph.D.s that are actually currently working [in the military] at Aberdeen. You need to keep them relevant and sharp in their profession.”
He is also establishing a leadership program on base that will allow some at APG to work in different positions for a brief stint and broaden their experience levels.
“We believe that by rotating them around, within the installation, it will broaden their knowledge and again give them multiple perspectives instead of a single perspective,” he said.
Living in a newly restored historic home on an idyllic spot on the Chesapeake Bay where ranking APG officers reside, Ferrell and his wife, Monique, often entertain local and military guests in their dining room with home-cooked meals.
“We spend about two or three hours on just fellowship and getting to know each other because, to me, at the end of the day it’s about relationships, and the stronger the relationship is, the easier it is for us to get things accomplished and the easier it is for us to impact on the goodness for the community and goodness for the installation.
“Those are small things, but huge when it comes to relationship building.”
After moving around the world several times over the past three decades, including his prior assignment as director of the Command and Control, Communications and Computer Systems and Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, Ferrell said he has settled into his new home — centrally located between his hometown of Newark and the Pentagon.
“I pinch myself every day,” he said of the location. “I have two little Yorkies that have plenty of room to kind of get out and stretch their legs a little bit. It is the best kept secret. … I always tell the Army to leave me there.”
Over the next few months, until he marks his first year on the job, Ferrell said he hopes to keep making progress on his many initiatives at APG — even under the possibility of another round of BRAC, which could affect the base even more.
He said he will also work toward opening APG up to visitors to demystify the grounds. Recently, a rock concert featuring Grand Funk Railroad, Kansas and Boston drew crowds there, followed by a gospel concert and live-fire demonstration during “arms week” last month. An Oktoberfest celebration is planned at APG for late September, with the first keg to be tapped by Harford County Executive David R. Craig.
“My focus since I’ve been on the ground in February is transparency and teaming,” Ferrell said. “That’s been my two watchwords, and that’s with no boundaries when it comes to [the base]. I try to make sure whether you’re in the community or you’re on the installation, all you have to do is pick up the phone and you’ll have that embracement.”
Major General Robert S. Ferrell
Family: Married for 28 years to Monique, a senior executive service officer for the Army as a deputy auditing general for personnel. Two sons, Robert, 26, a graphic artist in Stuttgart, Germany, and Michael, 24, a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps., assigned to the White House.
Education: Attended Fayetteville State University in North Carolina in the late 1970s; graduated in 1983 from Virginia’s Hampton University with a business degree. Commissioned in the U.S. Army on Aug. 15, 1983 as an Army Signal Corps officer. Master of Science Degree in Administration from Central Michigan University. Master of Science Degree in Strategy from the Army War College.
Service: Was the aide-de-camp to the secretary of the Army; assistant division signal officer, 82nd Airborne Division; battalion executive officer, 82nd Signal Battalion; Brigade S3, 7th Signal Brigade, 5th Signal Command; aide-de-camp to the commanding general, V Corps, U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army; commander, 13th Signal Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division; military assistant to the executive secretary, Office of the Secretary of Defense; and military assistant to the director, Program Management Office at the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Iraq; commanded the 2d Signal Brigade, 5th Signal Command; served as chief, Programs Division in the Office of the Congressional Legislative Liaison; senior Army fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations and director, army modernization, strategic communication, in Arlington, Va.
Boards and Commissions: Member through APG of the Chesapeake Science & Security Corridor; life member, Council on Foreign Relations.