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Congressional auditors say the government's decision to move a 75-employee Air Force electronic warfare training program from Cheektowaga to California is a nonsensical and costly one that ought to be reversed.

The General Accounting Office report says that the government's last base closure commission erred two years ago when it accepted the Department of Defense's recommendation to move Calspan SRL Corp.'s REDCAP flight testing operation to Edwards Air Force Base. Similar mistakes were made in the commission's decision to move two other electronic combat programs to western locations, auditors added.

"The loss of electronic combat effectiveness was not given adequate consideration in the development of DOD's Electronic Combat Consolidation Master Plan," auditors wrote. "The Master Plan contained no costs or evidence of savings."

For that reason, the GAO recommended that Defense Secretary William Cohen redo the study that led to the consolidation plan, and suggested that Congress may want to order Cohen to delay the consolidation until such a study is done.

The Department of Defense disagreed with nearly every one of the auditors' findings.

"The services made decisions to consolidate in areas where they would have the least impact on the ability of the department to perform effective testing and evaluation," wrote Patricia Sanders, director of test systems engineering and evaluation for the Pentagon. "The impact of deferring the allocation of funds (for the consolidation) will be very costly to acquisition programs and schedules."

Nevertheless, the auditors were particularly harsh in criticizing the move of the Calspan "Real-Time Digitally Controlled Analyzer Processor" program.

"The Master Plan proposal to move the REDCAP facility from Buffalo . . . will reduce electronic combat testing effectiveness," the GAO audit said. The plan involves developing a new computer model at the California air base to simulate REDCAP's capabilities, but it will not include all of REDCAP's testing features.

For example, REDCAP can simulate several war planes approaching targets protected by several different radar systems, but its proposed replacement can not.

The consolidation decision also means that the Air Force won't use much of the equipment that it has paid $75 million for at the Cheektowaga facility over the past eight years.

In its response, the Defense Department said there would be no great reduction in training capability and no wasted expenditures for a simple reason: "Currently, REDCAP goes practically unused."

Yet auditors maintain that the move won't be a money-saver. The GAO found that when the base closure commission tried to project the cost savings for the REDCAP move, it failed to take into account the $6.2 million computer model that will have be developed to replace the Cheektowaga facility.

"The Electronic Combat Consolidation Master Plan includes no evidence that any savings will result and, in fact, includes no cost data at all," auditors said.

In response, the Defense Department said that much of REDCAP is outdated and would have to be replaced even if it were maintained in Cheektowaga.

Calspan spokesman Dennis Gauci said the company would have no comment on the audit.

Gauci said about 50 people currently work at the REDCAP operation, down from 75 when the downsizing began. He said Calspan, which employs 400 in Cheektowaga, expects to be able to find jobs elsewhere in the Cheektowaga facility for the employees who will be displaced by the REDCAP move.

He stressed that the company -- particularly its operations developing sophisticated electronic highway controls -- is growing and actually has job openings despite the defense program downsizing.

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