WASHINGTON -- The Army is considering a Massachusetts post as a potential eastern headquarters for seven Army laboratories, three now in Maryland, the Army has confirmed.
A decision to create a consolidated laboratory at Fort Devens in Ayer, Mass., could jeopardize the jobs of the roughly 1,700 employees at the Harry Diamond Laboratory in Adelphi and the Human Engineering Laboratory and the Ballistic Research Laboratory, both at Aberdeen Proving Ground, according to congressional and military officials.
At the 40-year-old Human Engineering Laboratory at Aberdeen, the 250 workers specialize in ergonomics -- testing human endurance and strength and then tailoring equipment to meet those limits.
The 52-year-old Ballistic Research Laboratory which has 750 employees, is the Army's leading facility for assessing the vulnerability of combat vehicles and studying the effectiveness of weapons and vehicles.
At the Harry Diamond Laboratory, which has been in Adelphi for 17 years, 692 employees evaluate radar and what would happen to equipment in the event of nuclear attack.
But in an effort to consolidate their basic research labs as a part of congressional mandates to reduce the size and cost of the U.S. military, Army officials are looking for east and west coast sites for consolidated laboratories.
Fort Devens is being "seriously considered" as an east coast headquarters with a western lab most likely to be located at White Sands, N.M., said Marian Singleton, a spokeswoman for the Army's Laboratory Command in Adelphi.
"The Army is downsizing and the labs are part of that," Singleton said. "It's just a fact of life that the Army's going to get smaller."
Labs not selected as the consolidated center "either have to be realigned or closed," she said.
All seven Army labs are being examined as possible headquarters, she said, refusing to say if there are any clear finalists.
"The missions of each of the seven labs . . . are being fully considered and all of them are considered essential," she said. "I don't know of all of the rest of the options. I don't want to go into them. They're all going to be considered seriously."
Defense officials are looking at various factors at each site, including the area's quality of life, accessibility to universities, industrial base and proximity to other military facilities, Singleton said. Another advantage for a facility is whether it has capabilities not found anywhere else in the Army, she said.
But despite Singleton's reassurances that Maryland's sites won't be overlooked, several indicators show Fort Devens could be the frontrunner in the race.
A delegation from the command visited Fort Devens on a fact-finding trip the first week of February and is looking for 1 million square feet of office space there, said a Fort Devens spokesman.
Also, the Army may be looking for ways to pacify Massachusetts lawmakers, who are insisting that the Army transfer its data processing center to Ayer from Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
Congressional sources indicate that the Army now wants to avoid an expensive move for the Information Systems Command and is searching for an acceptable substitute.
Moving "very rapidly," Army officials expect to reveal a decision on the lab consolidation issue when a list of recommended base closures is submitted to Congress on April 15, Singleton said.
But Maryland lawmakers, who met last month with Pentagon officials to discuss the lab merger, may be hoping to buy time.