HONOLULU — The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command plans to move into a new $82 million headquarters and lab being built at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam — as the Pentagon and Congress look at restructuring the command and the possibility of moving it to the mainland.
The future uncertainty — even with the taxpayer expenditure of millions of dollars — follows scathing criticism of agencies in Hawaii and on the mainland that recover missing service members over interagency disagreements, overspending and underperforming results.
"I am here to give a loud wake-up call to everyone involved that it is time to put your squabbles aside for the good of the mission and the good of our nation," U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said at a hearing in August titled "Mismanagement of POW/MIA Accounting."
The Defense Department estimated some 83,000 Americans are missing from past wars, McCaskill said.
Planning for the new JPAC facility — which was championed by the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and will be named for him — has been difficult with the changing political and budgetary landscape, meanwhile.
Congress required the Pentagon, in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, to evaluate reorganizing the nationwide accounting community under one command, merging JPAC with other efforts and/or relocating POW/MIA accounting activities to the mainland.
On Feb. 20 the Pentagon announced it was giving an acting undersecretary of defense 30 days to come up with a plan to consolidate those accounting efforts and increase the average of 77 identifications of missing war dead made annually.
Congress required in 2010 that JPAC — whose job is to search for, recover and identify those service members — increase its identifications to 200 by 2015.
But JPAC commander Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague testified at the August hearing that that wasn't a realistic goal.
JPAC's budget was $89 million in 2013, McKeague said. The plan was to add money and resources over five years so the agency could increase its annual identifications.
JPAC was to receive 253 additional personnel — but U.S. Pacific Command budget cuts are reducing those extra staffers to 133, an official said.
"I think a realistic goal for us, which would be attainable, would be a 10 percent per year increase (in identifications)," McKeague said at the hearing. "If we were to do that, we could be at 125 identifications within five years."
At the time, McKeague said JPAC had 239 military members, 265 civilians, 41 Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education fellows, and four contractors.
The new three-story headquarters building, with 140,000 square feet of space, is expected to help increase efficiencies by consolidating JPAC sections spread across 13 buildings at Hickam, three at Pearl Harbor and two warehouses near Pearl City Peninsula, the command said.
The new building, near Hickam's Kuntz Gate, is about 70 percent complete, with a target completion of July 31, said Nathan Loo, with JPAC's engineering and facilities management office.
Lab space at Hickam, Building 220 at Pearl Harbor and at a satellite facility at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska stands at 47,500 square feet now, JPAC said.
With the new facility and use of some of the other labs, that space will increase to 76,500 square feet, the command said. The current JPAC Central Identification Laboratory footprint in Hawaii is 27,000 square feet.
"The new facility will provide approximately 45,000 square feet of laboratory space that has been designed to be a state-of-the-art facility," said JPAC spokesman Lee Tucker.
The new laboratory "will allow for a far greater number of remains to be analyzed and stored than is currently possible," Tucker said.
But not the 200 identifications mandated annually by Congress.
JPAC explained that in a written answer provided to McCaskill.
"In order to increase capacity and capability to achieve a minimum of 200 annual identifications, JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory would need to more than double both its scientific and lab-support staff as well as its physical laboratory space," the command said.
The new headquarters was designed prior to the 2010 legislation "and will not accommodate the required demand," JPAC said.
Loo said the new building was supposed to be completed in late 2013, but that date slid to July with the need to make "major reconfigurations" to accommodate what was expected to be 253 more people — a number that's now fallen as a result of budget cuts.
The new three-story headquarters is impressive compared with the smaller, existing lab and collection of trailers that serve as extra office space.
Stylized Hawaiian plants are cut into the exterior's concrete panels. An open-air central courtyard is partly covered by a room for families to be with a recovered loved one's remains which juts out over the open space on the third floor.
Photovoltaic panels are expected to result in savings of $280,000 on average a year, Loo said.
The old lab and analytical space will be used by the teams that deploy around the world to investigate and recover remains, and the trailers will be removed, Loo said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2013 that the Pentagon's ability to accomplish the accounting mission was "being undermined by longstanding leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure."
The GAO said it found overlapping responsibility and interagency disputes.
The agencies cited included JPAC, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory and the Air Force Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory.
The GAO findings followed an internal JPAC report that harshly criticized "military tourism" trips to Europe by JPAC staffers with luxury hotels and fine dining.
JPAC officials said the problems have been fixed with a series of reforms, but the Pentagon inspector general's office said it planned this fiscal year to investigate whether JPAC travel was "properly authorized and executed."
Tucker, the JPAC spokesman, said JPAC should stay in Hawaii.
"For us operationally it just makes sense," he said. "Roughly 75 percent of our missions are in the Pacific theater. That's a big reason why we were consolidated to Hawaii in the first place."