Linchpin of the Defense Industry, Camden Eyes Future Growth

Linchpin of the Defense Industry, Camden Eyes Future Growth
Bunkers at the Highland Industrial Park in Camden (Highland Industrial Park)

Aerojet Rocketdyne will be adding at least 200 new jobs at its facilities in Camden, where it manufactures rocket systems that are used in American military operations abroad. 

The publicly traded company produces 75,000 solid rocket motors annually at its facilities in Highland Industrial Park where numerous other defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin and National Technical Systems, are also located. Many of the rocket motors produced by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Camden have been used in weapons systems to support Ukraine after the 2022 Russian invasion of the country.  

Chandra Hooker, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s senior director and site executive, shared the future plans of the aerospace company during a Rotary Club of Little Rock event this week. In April, the U.S. Department of Defense announced a $215 million agreement with Aerojet Rocketdyne to expand and modernize its facilities in Camden, as well as Huntsville, Alabama, and Orange County, Virginia. 

In a news release, the DoD said in April that the funds would be used to “modernize manufacturing processes at the company’s facilities, consolidate production lines, purchase equipment, build systems to process data, and increase production and delivery speed for Javelins, Stingers, and the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS).”  

“The money we get from the DoD is going to help us grow and get those products out at a faster speed,” Hooker said, adding that the company currently employs about 1,100 people. 

Hooker was joined by John Schaffitzel, president of Highland Industrial Park, and James Lee Silliman, Ouachita Partnership for Economic Development executive director, to discuss the defense industry in south Arkansas. 

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s plans for expansion and renovations of infrastructure in Camden exemplify a broader trend in that area as it becomes a major linchpin for the production of weapons used by the U.S. military. Last year, Politico published a story that brought national attention to Camden as defense contractors there churned out weaponry, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, to send to Ukrainian frontlines. 

American military leaders credited the HIMARS as an integral component for Ukrainian soldiers to resist Russian advances. HIMARS is produced by Lockheed Martin.

Community stakeholders in Camden are now exploring ways to help the industry grow more. In particular, they're looking at strategies to attract workers to the area, which is one of the most sparsely populated and poorest regions in the state. 

“Some of the most sophisticated defensive missile systems in the world are being produced in Camden,” Silliman said. 

In 2019, Lockheed Martin announced at the Paris Air Show that it would invest $142 million in its Camden facility and add 326 new jobs by 2024. Those new jobs would grow the company’s workforce from about 700 employees to more than 900. 

Hooker said Aerojet Rocketdyne needs employees ranging from skilled workers to technical engineers. “If we don’t have people who have manufacturing experience, then we are looking for people who have the ability to pass a career readiness assessment with a silver rating or higher,” she said. 

Twenty-six product lines are produced at the Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Camden site, she said. Over the past few decades, production lines were moved to Camden as the aerospace company shut down facilities in places like California. Aerojet Rocketdyne occupies about 2,000 acres and 150 buildings and bunkers at the industrial park.

“The reason I think the government and the Pentagon and the Defense Department continue to contract with a lot of the companies located there is our track record, our history, our heritage,” Silliman said. “A lot of the systems that have been produced have been built on budget, or under budget, and on time, so I think that is the reason we get a hard look any time there are additional programs or contracts coming down the line.” 

Schaffitzel, president of Highland Industrial Park, which, with more than 5 million SF of manufacturing and warehouse buildings, is the second largest industrial park in the U.S., said demand from companies to have operations there has been so much that the park is at capacity. 

“We don’t have any space,” Schaffitzel said. “There are exciting times coming up ahead of us. We are trying to make sure that the tenants are aware that they have room to grow.” 

Both Silliman and Schaffitzel said they are working on plans to add amenities that would draw more talent to the region. Many employees commute from bigger cities, like Little Rock, for work, they said. 

“We are looking to do some housing projects and other types of quality-of-life projects,” Schaffitzel said. “[We] want to build some walking trails and shops and restaurants and housing options to try to recruit people to the area so they have a place they want to live and work and bring their families there.”

“It will be a lot of work. It will take a lot of time,” he said. “We are in the dreaming phase right now, trying to turn over stones and getting ready to work on all of those projects.”

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