WASHINGTON—A provision adopted this week as part of a pending defense spending bill would prevent the Air Force from making further cuts to the Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base without approval from Congress.
The directive, sponsored by Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Lowell, was approved by the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. It is being hailed by Bay State officials and business leaders who say the Air Force’s recent downsizing plans for the Bedford base would harm the military’s ability to field cutting-edge technologies and strike a blow to the Massachusetts economy.
“This language simply states that the Air Force cannot diminish Hanscom’s capabilities or its important work without congressional approval and is the first step in protecting Hanscom’s mission going forward,” Tsongas, a member of the armed services panel, said in a statement.
The move was prompted by several recent proposals by the Air Force to place the Electronic Systems Center under the authority of another command in Ohio and reduce hundreds of government positions and up to several thousand contractors who provide support services to the weapons development center.
Those cost-cutting moves have stoked fears that the Air Force might ultimately be planning to relocate the center’s mission to other bases across the country.
Tsongas’s office estimates that 10,000 military and civilian personnel work and live at Bedford base, where the Air Force manages more than 200 acquisition programs with an annual budget of more than $5 billion.
Tsongas’s provision, attached to the defense spending bill for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, “is very encouraging news and a major step toward preventing future closures or disproportionate budget cuts,” said Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, who chairs the Massachusetts Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force.
The legislative maneuver, which would have to be approved by the full House and Senate, and then signed by the president, is also viewed by local companies as a positive sign that some of the recent uncertainty about Hanscom’s future may subside—at least for the time being.
Christopher Anderson, president of the Defense Technology Initiative, which represents many of the base’s contractors, contends that the center’s proximity to some of the nation’s leading technology firms and research universities makes a strong case that the research efforts there be expanded into new areas such as cyber defense.
“Congresswoman Tsongas’s amendment recognizes Hanscom’s complex acquisition mission,” Anderson said in a statement. “In the context of pressure on defense budgets, this language will help assure that Hanscom focuses on increasing capabilities rather than deemphasizing our cyber command and cyber control capabilities.”
MIT, which runs the government-funded Lincoln Laboratory, agrees and recently proposed financing a $450 million electronics research laboratory on the Bedford base, a plan that is also now in the process of getting congressional approval.
Tsongas said she also believes the base is well positioned for further growth, particularly in the area of computer security.
“Given the military’s increased focus on intelligence gathering capabilities, Hanscom is an ideal site for cyber security research and development, an area in which the Air Force seeks to increase spending while so many cuts are being made elsewhere in their budget,” she said.
The new provision written by Tsongas to shield the base from cuts directs the secretary of the Air Force to “retain the core functions of the Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, with the same integrated mission elements, responsibilities, and capabilities as existed as of November 1, 2011.”
If adopted, the Air Force would be allowed to make cuts at the base only if Congress expressly voted for it or lawmakers approve the creation of an independent commission to close or realign military bases across the country.
The Pentagon early this year requested that Congress establish such a Base Realignment and Closure Commission. But so far a majority of the Democrats and Republicans appear unwilling to grant it during a heated election year.