Hanscom contract workers face cuts
Base to lose portion of its US funding
WASHINGTON - Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, once considered immune to major budget cuts, is set to lose three-quarters of its funding for contract workers and is facing the loss of hundreds of government jobs, according to Air Force documents and officials.
The cost-cutting measures at the base’s Electronic Systems Center, set to take place over the next four years, will affect most of the 1,250 contractors now providing management, engineering, and other private-sector services. A separate change in Hanscom’s military status will mean the loss of nearly 380 government positions, according to internal briefings prepared in recent days by base leaders and shared with the Globe.
“We are working hard to implement the changes and reductions in the smartest possible way to ensure the least impact on both our civilian personnel and our contractor workforce,’’ Lieutenant General Charles R. Davis, commander of the Electronic Systems Center, told the Globe in response to questions about the plans.
In recent weeks, community leaders and members of Congress have expressed confidence that Hanscom’s role in developing high-tech weapons and communications systems would protect it from significant budget cuts, at least for the foreseeable future, as the military launches new cost-cutting measures.
But the intention to reduce the center’s budget to finance support services from private companies nestled around the Bedford base is sparking concerns about the future health of the small and medium-sized firms that rely heavily on the base for their business.
The planned cuts are outlined in an internal 40-page report prepared last month by the Electronic Systems Command, and in a separate eight-page briefing drafted in December describing a “burn-down plan of reducing [advisory and assistance services] spending by 74 percent’’ over the next four years. The documents were provided to the Globe by two Hanscom officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to make the information public.
The 74 percent cut in the contractor budget for “advisory and assistance services’’ will be made over the next four years, concluding in October 2016, according to the documents. The reductions will begin almost immediately, according to base spokesman Chuck Paone.
“We are looking at a 10 to 15 percent . . . budget reduction this year,’’ he said.
One of the largest portions of the contractor budget is for program oversight and management services. Under the new plan, that work will be cut from $869 million to $390 million over the next four years, the documents show.
At least eight companies that do such work could be affected, including Oasis Systems in Lexington; Odyssey Systems Consulting Group in Wakefield and Burlington; Gemini Industries in Billerica; PESystems Inc. in Littleton; Quantech Services in Lexington; and Sumeria Systems Inc. in Danvers.
“It’s going to be bad; we just don’t know how bad,’’ said Peter Krawczyk, vice president of Oasis Systems, where about two-thirds of the company’s nearly 500 employees work on contract for the Bedford facility.
Krawczyk, who went to work for Oasis five years ago after retiring from Hanscom as a lieutenant colonel, said the company’s management is scrambling to find ways to lessen the impact on hundreds of employees.
“We are looking to diversify to soften the blow,’’ he said.
Another company that expects to be hit hard by the budget cuts is Odyssey Systems.
“Hanscom is probably about a third of our business,’’ said Mike Sweat, who left his job at the base in 1997 to start the firm. Back then he had two employees. Now, the company has about 325, he said.
Mike Kelley, a former Hanscom official who now works for Abacus Technology, whose Lexington division also provides support services to the base, believes some companies may not survive as a result.
“They’re going to die if you take away 75 percent of their people,’’ Kelley said.
Members of Congress are also expressing concern. Senators Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, both Republicans, urged the Air Force in a letter last week to “closely monitor the reductions at the Electronic Systems Center to ensure they are implemented in a manner that does not unfairly target small businesses.’’
The Electronic Systems Center, activated in 1961, develops communications and electronics systems for the Air Force and has overseen the design of such mainstays as the large-domed early-warning aircraft known as AWACs. It was established in the Boston area in large part due to the proximity of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories and the federally funded Mitre Corp., which would not be affected by the proposed cuts.
Base officials say the center oversees about 200 large and small electronics, computers, and surveillance programs. It has an annual budget of about $5 billion and, according to industry groups, employs, both directly and indirectly, an estimated 16,000 people.
On top of the contractor budget cuts, however, the Air Force is also in the process of downgrading the Electronic Systems Center in the Pentagon chain of command. By Oct. 1, the facility will no longer be headed by a three-star general. It will be split into two directorates headed by a two-star officer who will report to a higher headquarters in Ohio, according to the documents obtained by the Globe.
That move means the center will also have to reduce its headquarters staff by 379 positions this year, according to Paone. It has not yet been determined if all of those jobs will be abolished or whether some will be transferred to Ohio.
Some former base officials worry that the cuts and the change in the center’s status could set the stage for further reductions - especially if Congress adopts a controversial Pentagon proposal to close or consolidate excess military bases across the country.
“When you take away the three-star position and the headquarters staff that goes along with that, is that going to impact the assignment of new programs, or will they end up being assigned somewhere else?’’ asked Charlie Benway, a former Hanscom official who is chairman of the board of the North Suburban Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re not seeing these kinds of reductions in other Air Force bases,’’ he added.
Davis, the Electronic Systems Center commander, maintained to the Globe that “there are no changes being made to our core mission.’’
But people like Sweat, with experience as both a government employee and contractor at the base, wonder how the center will do its job with significantly fewer workers.
“They haven’t developed the organic workforce to take the place of the contractors they would cut,’’ he said.
James Cunningham, who retired as executive director of the Electronics Systems Center in 2005, is now president of the Lexington-Concord chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, which represents some of the affected companies.
“There is a concern in the wider community,’’ he said. “It is not a very good omen.’’
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com