The Army faces "significant challenges" in moving its communications, surveillance and electronics operations from Fort Monmouth, N.J., to Aberdeen Proving Ground without disrupting the military's war effort, according to a new congressional report that warns of potential staffing shortages and difficulties in quickly providing security clearances to new workers.
Turnover is expected to be so high among the veteran scientists and engineers now working at the New Jersey base that it might take the Army until 2019 or 2024 to fill all the vacant positions and fully train the new employees, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, warned in its report.
Fort Monmouth is set to close in 2011 as part of a nationwide military base closure and realignment approved by Congress in 2005 and known as BRAC. The 90-year-old installation employs 4,400 civilian defense workers, 200 military personnel and about 2,600 contract workers on- and off-base.
About 30 percent to 40 percent of the current workers have said in surveys that they plan to move to Maryland, the report notes, so the Army expects it will need to hire 3,700 people to fully reconstitute the work force. In addition to replacing departing workers, the Army plans to increase the total employment to 5,100 to handle a greater workload.
Though Congress has not reversed a base closure decision since adopting the current system for recommending such changes, New Jersey members have complained that Army brass misinformed lawmakers about the costs and potential turmoil that could be caused in this case.
"We cannot put the intelligence and communications on which our troops rely in jeopardy. Unfortunately, as this report makes clear, they would be at grave risk if Fort Monmouth were to close," Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey said yesterday. "If the work at Fort Monmouth weren't important to the lives and effectiveness of our troops maybe they could justify this move, but as is, this is without justification."
Yesterday, Maryland's congressional delegation issued a joint statement putting a positive spin on the GAO report, stressing that the Army has plans for dealing with all possible problems. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat who is House majority leader, said the report "confirms that the upcoming move ... is on track to be a success."
The Army assured Congress in a report in December that it was taking steps to ensure that the move would not disrupt the military's war effort. It plans to relocate the New Jersey base's work force in phases over the next three years, with an early transfer of about 900 employees and the hiring of 500 others locally.
The GAO said the plan that the Army has fleshed out might lessen the risks of disruption by aggressively recruiting replacements, fast-tracking their hiring and obtaining interim security clearances.
Army officials plan to hire about 1,500 new employees in all before Fort Monmouth closes in three years, with plans to fill the other 2,200 positions after the move is complete. That may not happen until 2016, though the Army has asked for approval to fast-track hiring of replacements, which it estimates could shave two years off that lag.
But even then, many of the new workers are expected to lack the training of their predecessors, the GAO report says. The Army estimates it may take another three to eight years for them to gain the skills and expertise to function at full effectiveness.
Because of that potential problem, the Army is considering contracting out more of the work, or shifting some of its tasks to other Army groups until the work force can reach full strength. But the GAO report notes that defense contractors might experience similar turnover in relocating their supporting operations from New Jersey to Maryland.
The replacement workers might also have trouble getting security clearances, the report warns, pointing out that there have been long-standing delays and backlogs in the process of vetting government workers. The Army hopes to skirt that potential hurdle by obtaining interim clearances for new hires, but the GAO cautions that such clearances involve less thorough background investigations.
The Pentagon's estimate of costs for closing Monmouth and moving most of its work to Aberdeen has more than doubled since Congress approved it three years ago, to $1.6 billion. The cost could go still higher, the report notes, since some construction contracts have not been awarded yet.