Last week, two of the best-sourced reporters on the defense beat wrote stories indicating that the Pentagon may be getting an early start on cutting weapons programs. On February 5, Jason Sherman of InsideDefense.com disclosed that defense secretary Robert Gates had chartered a small team of aides to draft a list of major systems that could be targeted for termination in the fiscal 2010 budget. On February 6, Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg Business News reported the contents of what appears to be one such list. No decisions have been made, but if even half the options on the list are implemented, tens of thousands of good-paying jobs are about to disappear in places where the economic outlook is already bleak.
Sherman described the efforts of the Gates team as part of a broader effort to rebalance military capabilities between conventional and irregular warfare. President Obama embraced that goal on the campaign trail, but nobody knew when he drew up his defense agenda that credit markets were about to collapse. Obama now finds himself trying to rescue an economy that is in free fall, yet the Pentagon is going ahead with plans to cut weapons despite the likely economic impact. Among the targeted programs listed by Capaccio in his Bloomberg story are the Navy’s DDG-51 destroyer and LPD-17 amphibious warship, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Joint Tactical Radio System, the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter, and the Army’s future family of networked combat vehicles.
The DDG-51 destroyer is built at Bath Ironworks in Maine and the Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi, the two biggest industrial complexes in their respective states. The Navy has recently decided to cancel its next-generation Zumwalt-class destroyer, leaving DDG-51 as the only surface combatant likely to be built at either site in significant quantities. The Navy says it needs to buy upgraded versions of the DDG-51 to protect the fleet against growing ballistic, airborne and undersea threats. Termination of DDG-51 would endanger the 5,700 workers at Bath and some multiple of that number at other locations. Combined with a decision to forego production of the eleventh LPD-17, the DDG-51 termination would also endanger many of the 10,000 workers at the Ingalls shipyard.
Cutting production of the F/A-18 Super Hornet would also destroy thousands of jobs in St. Louis (where two car plants are shutting) and at the GE jet engine factory in Massachusetts. According to Capaccio of Bloomberg, the hit list does not envision terminating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but it does raise the possibility of reducing funding to save money. That would be a false economy, because the tightly-wound F-35 business plan requires timely execution and efficient production rates to hold down the cost of each plane. Tinkering with the plan now would greatly increase long-term program costs for three U.S. services and at least nine overseas allies, potentially impairing the whole effort. The loss of manufacturing jobs in Texas, Connecticut and elsewhere could number in the tens of thousands.
The economic consequences of cutting the Army’s future combat systems and the joint radio would be more diffuse, because those programs are still in development. But thousands of direct jobs could be lost, and prime-contractor Boeing has recently estimated that there are three jobs indirectly tied to its programs for each direct job. It doesn’t make sense to buy unneeded weapons just to stimulate the economy, but all of the programs on the reported list meet critical military requirements and are strongly supported by the services that will receive them. So maybe someone at the White House ought to consider the connection between the administration’s defense and economic policies.
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