More than 300 civilian weapons-testing jobs and related positions at Aberdeen Proving Ground could be eliminated over the next several years, and union officials fear that even greater cuts may follow.
No one expected the proving ground, Harford County's largest employer, to be immune from the post-Cold War cuts that are occurring throughout the Department of Defense.
But the word to union officials last week to get ready for job cuts is hitting home with blue- and white-collar workers alike.
"In the next five years, you're going to see drastic cuts here," said one top official with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the largest labor union at the huge Army research and test center.
The official, fearing reprisals, asked that his name not be used.
Gary Holloway, a proving ground spokesman, acknowledged that the mood among some proving ground workers is changing.
"I think what you're seeing now is some realization that, 'God, the Army is going down,' " Mr. Holloway said.
"You haven't seen that at Aberdeen yet," adding, "we believe that we've been fairly lucky, that we've been left alone up until now."
L "It looks like now we're going to be invited into the game."
According to an internal Army memo distributed among officials at the proving ground and sister test centers around the country, nearly 30 percent of civilian workers at the proving ground's Combat Systems Test Activity could lose their jobs, be asked to take early retirement or be shifted to lower-paying jobs by fiscal 1997.
The document projected that the unit's civilian work force could be cut to 817 from its current 1,137.
Parts of the memo were obtained by The Sun.
The Combat Systems Test Activity, one of the largest civilian employers at the proving ground, is the unit that tests tanks and other combat vehicles, artillery and weapons.
Overall, 9,000 civilians work in 55 units at the proving ground.
Neighbors of the proving ground know the weapons-testing unit well. The thunderous noise generated during weapons tests echoes through parts of eastern Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties, and even into Kent County across the Chesapeake Bay.
The projected cuts result from expected reductions in the weapons-testing unit's workload and as well as general defense budget reductions, Mr. Holloway said.
But that does not mean that neighbors will hear significantly less noise from the proving ground, he added.
Mr. Holloway insisted that the cuts are not definite.
He said commanders at the weapons-testing unit and other units at the 72,000-acre proving ground were trying to prepare for the "worst-case scenario."
But, the union official said: "The bulk of the work force has been put on alert that there's a RIF [reduction in force] in progress, but they don't know a lot of particulars."
Projected cuts within the weapons-testing unit, and the fear of cuts in other proving ground units, is creating uncertainty, Army and union officials said.
The situation is made worse by the fact that the defense budget for the federal fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 has not yet been
worked out in Congress.
"It seems like every other week there's a new drill on numbers" of workers needed in years to come, said James Allingham, a spokesman for the Chemical Research, Development and Engineering Center.
The chemical warfare research unit has about 1,400 civilian workers.
One unknown is how many full-time civilian workers will wind up being replaced by contracted workers.
"They want to get rid of [full-time] blue-collar workers and hire contractors," the union official claimed.
But that has not been decided, Mr. Holloway said. He said Maj. Gen. Ronald V. Hite, the proving ground's commander, has told lower-rank commanders "to be creative" in dealing with the cuts.
Also unclear is the effect on the economy of any cuts at the proving ground. Salaries and contracts at the proving ground mean more than $600 million to Maryland's economy each year.
"We're cutting billions upon billions in defense dollars," said an aide to Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.
"It's inevitable that jobs will be lost" at the proving ground, the aide said. "We will work to try to keep jobs up there," the aide said.
Mrs. Bentley, the 2nd District Republican, is among members of Congress working to "convert" traditional defense jobs to jobs in environmental cleanup and other fields, the aide said.
In addition, the proving ground is looking to offset some job cuts by gaining more research and testing contracts from foreign governments and private industry.
Harford County officials maintain that the proving ground's diverse research mission will protect it from broader cuts.
Over the next five years or so, the Army plans to consolidate some of its research units, among others, and expects to move some personnel to the proving ground.
The Army said last month it would move 200 ordnance training jobs from Fort Belvoir, Va., to the proving ground. In another planned consolidation to be completed by fiscal 1996, the Army expects to move as many as 300 jobs associated with a laboratory unit to the proving ground from several other installations in Massachusetts, Virginia and Maryland.
What remains to be seen is whether the new jobs created by the consolidations will compensate for those that may be lost at Aberdeen in the Army-wide manpower reduction.