By Bryan Bender
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is proposing to build a $450 million research facility at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford in a long-term venture that would reinforce the base's high-tech mission without requiring new federal spending, according to government officials.
The 10-year plan would enhance the value of the base, where weapons and other defense research is conducted, at a time when Massachusetts officials worry Hanscom could be a victim in a new round of cost-saving base closures.
The research facility, to be run by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, would design small electronic components for use in emerging aerospace, communications, and missile technologies.
The plan has already been approved by the Pentagon and is now pending approval from Congress. No opposition is expected.
"It's a win for Hanscom, for MIT, and for businesses in the areas that need access to research facilities,'' said William B. Bonvillian, director of MIT's Washington office.
"This would be a major new innovation capability for Lincoln Labs. It replaces 1950s and 1960s buildings that have reached the end of their utility. It's a major asset for the state,'' Bonvillian said.
It also comes with a key attraction: With MIT financing it, the cash-strapped federal government would not have to shell out construction money, although it would later pay fees to use the research space.
Planners estimate that the construction would create at least 275 jobs over three or four years and require $150 million worth of locally and regionally produced materials, said Tony Sharon, assistant director for operations at Lincoln Laboratory.
The proposal would allow MIT to tear down outdated facilities on the base to construct a research lab of 250,000 to 300,000 square feet for Lincoln Laboratory.
An estimated 3,200 MIT employees and 500 private contractors who now work at Hanscom - and make up one of the largest tenant groups on the base - would use the new facilities, according to lab officials. Some of the space would be leased out to private firms.
"This consists of constructing new buildings, demolishing obsolete buildings, and installing new support infrastructure on Hanscom Air Force Base,'' according to a summary of the plan provided to the Globe.
"These laboratories are among the most complex,'' it added, "and are currently distributed among several functionally obsolete and failing buildings spread across Hanscom. This plan will enable [Lincoln Laboratory] to stay on the cutting edge of technological advances critical to the national defense.''
Hanscom was established in 1941 and quickly became one of the military's primary development centers for electronics and radar, relying heavily on researchers from Harvard University and MIT.
The Department of Defense established Lincoln Laboratory in 1951 as a federally funded research and development center and authorized MIT to oversee it.
Based in Lexington, the center constructed its first facilities on the Bedford base in 1952. It also specializes in space communications, lasers, and aerospace technologies.
The Bedford base's growth over the years has played a central role in establishing the high-tech corridor that now thrives along Route 128.
The model for the new project is similar to the effort that MIT undertook in 1988, when the university financed a 10-acre research facility for Lincoln Laboratory on the Hanscom base under a 40-year lease with the government. That facility will be paid off in 2014.
"This model was extremely successful and we are trying to continue a good practice,'' said Sharon.
MIT is evaluating five locations at Hanscom to determine the most suitable location for the new facilities and limit the impact to the environment and the local community, according to Sharon.
The Hanscom expansion plan is the result of a series of evaluations conducted in recent months by the Air Force and a special Pentagon advisory committee that oversees Lincoln Laboratory, government officials said. Last month the proposal was approved by a senior-level panel in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The next step is approval by Congress for the Air Force to lease the land to MIT, officials said.
But perhaps the most attractive aspect is that the government will not have to put up money for project. Budget appropriations, according to the plan summary, "are neither requested nor required.''
That is especially welcome news at a time when budget cuts have already led to reductions in Air Force personnel and contractors at the Air Force's Electronic Systems Center and as officials fear further military downsizing efforts.
Senator Scott P. Brown, a member of the Armed Services Committee, is hoping to get the plan adopted as part of the Pentagon's spending bill by the end of May, according to his office.
"This plan will enable Lincoln Laboratory to stay on the cutting edge of advanced technologies,'' Brown said in a statement.
The Republican lawmaker, who is seeking the congressional approval along with Democratic Senator John F. Kerry, described the project as a key step in protecting the Bedford base from additional cuts.
The Air Force is already set to make substantial cuts to finance private contract workers who support the Electronic Systems Center.
Under an Air Force restructuring plan to take effect later this year, that separate center will be placed under the authority of another Air Force command in Ohio - a move that will slash several hundred government jobs.
"Updating these critical laboratories will help achieve our national security objectives and reinforce Hanscom's role in our local economy,'' Brown said.
Others agreed the project could make the overall Bedford facility less vulnerable to cuts over the long term.
"The military has always benefited from having access to some of the best minds in the country,'' said Mieke Eoyang, national security director at Third Way, a Washington think tank and a former top aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy on defense issues. "This proposal is a recognition of that.''
Kerry added that entities like MIT will help guarantee continued Pentagon investment in the region.
"The key to maintaining Massachusetts' edge in military technology is leveraging our unique research universities,'' he said. "Harnessing the synergy with Hanscom will ensure the best talent, technologies, and innovations continue to come from Massachusetts and stay in Massachusetts.''