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OPINION | REX NELSON: Camden on the defense

by Rex Nelson | June 7, 2023 at 3:34 a.m.

Against all odds, Ukraine continues to hold its own in its war against Russia. What most Arkansans don't realize is that the Ukrainians are relying in part on weapons systems assembled in the pine woods of south Arkansas.

There's an economic boom taking place in the defense industry, with hundreds of jobs available at companies that have operations near Camden. As members of NATO provide weapons to Ukraine, they deplete their inventories. As tensions rise with Russia and China, the United States and its allies must rebuild those inventories.

For that reason, there's no end in sight to defense industry growth.

Coupled with the coming lithium-extraction boom (fueled by the growth of electronic vehicle use and the subject of last Saturday's column), it could be a new day for the Camden-El Dorado-Magnolia area. Economic developers have long branded this region as the Golden Triangle for marketing purposes. This time, they might be onto something.

The American edition of Defense News recently published a story by Jen Judson headlined "How the War in Ukraine is Driving Growth in Arkansas."

"In downtown Camden, in south-central Arkansas, a large number of storefronts are dark and empty, giving little information about what once flourished there," Judson wrote. "In one block, only a flower shop and a handmade soap shop were open on a recent Monday. 'This building is not empty, it is full of possibilities,' read a sign in the window of another block.

"But a 10-minute drive away, the Highland Industrial Park was busy and its parking lot was full as some of the country's largest defense contractors--Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne and General Dynamics--produce solid-fuel engines, missiles, launchers and other weapons systems there.

"They turned out to be critically important for the U.S. armed forces, and now they are in the spotlight in Ukraine."

Since 1980, Lockheed Martin has been producing its M270 multiple launch rocket system in south Arkansas. The tracked rocket launcher can carry a dozen rockets. The company now produces HIMARS (high mobility artillery rocket system) here.

"HIMARS, carrying fewer missiles and rockets than its predecessor M270, but more mobile, attracts the attention of the whole world by helping Ukraine to fend off Russian invaders," Judson wrote. "And it sheds light on the revival of the defense industry in Camden."

Lockheed Martin's Aaron Huckaby told Defense News that the company is hiring technicians, assemblers, supervisors, process engineers, chemists and mechanics. It already has about 1,000 employees and uses 2.2 million square feet in the industrial park.

"The contractor has a partnership with Southern Arkansas University and is recruiting students from a technical school located directly across the street from the Lockheed Martin facility to participate in an apprenticeship program," Judson wrote. "Lockheed Martin is also eyeing graduates of Louisiana Tech University and establishing a new relationship with the University of Arkansas."

(DROP CAP) Meanwhile, Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has had a facility in the area since 1979, is producing more than 75,000 solid-fuel engines annually for weapons such as Javelin, Stinger and Patriot missiles. With more than 1,000 employees already, it's adding workers and a 51,000-square-foot facility.

General Dynamics, which makes explosives and combat parts, has 320 employees and is expanding with 15,000 square feet of additional space.

"The influx of defense workers is not unprecedented," Judson wrote.

"James Lee Silliman, executive director of the Ouachita Partnership for Economic Development, told Defense News that when the Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot opened in 1944, it attracted thousands of workers to Camden. The workers slept on the street and rented beds in the homes of local residents for eight hours.

"According to Silliman, the defense industry helped stabilize the local economy after the International Paper Co. paper mill closed two decades ago and most of its 600 employees left the area. Over the past five years, many local defense contractors have grown. Lockheed Martin, for example, has doubled its presence during the period.

"This influx has led to the construction of housing as well as the emergence of several businesses serving a younger audience, including a microbrewery. In order to cope with the expected boom of new workers and their families, the city is negotiating with developers to build more homes and apartment buildings."

"The problem right now is with the workforce," said Randy Zook of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. "We're trying to help with that."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Print Headline: Camden on the defense


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