October 1, 2012

Fighter Planes Seen As Mission Critical To Local Economy

An F-35 Lightning II, lands in 2008 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The U.S. military's embattled F-35 program is a matter of significance for the entire country, with a promise to replace thousands of aging fighter planes and a budget of $1.45 trillion over the next 50 years.

On a smaller scale, the program is also significant for the Central Massachusetts economy. Wyman-Gordon, a subsidiary of Precision Castparts Corp., is responsible for making 61 titanium and steel parts for the planes, ranging from 200 to 6,000 pounds, at its Grafton location, according to Director of Sales Joe Mahaney. Wyman is a subcontractor for the planes, which are being built by defense giant Lockheed Martin.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is set to account for 5 to 15 percent of the company's annual sales volume and 17 to 50 jobs over the next five years, depending on how quickly production ramps up, Mahaney said. But slowdowns and uncertainty around the program's budget have created what he calls a "major concern" for Wyman-Gordon.

"Wyman-Gordon invested significant capital in the development phase of the program based upon a reasonable rate of return," Mahaney said in an email message. "Due to the slowdown caused by the pressures on government funding, we are over 500 aircraft behind where we thought we would be after ten years of working on the F-35. Instead of realizing a return on our investment after three years, it has taken much longer."

The F-35 is a fifth-generation striker fighter, meaning it incorporates technological advances like thrust vectoring, stealth technology, the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds, and advanced sensors. It would replace 1970s-era aircraft and offer common technology that could be used by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, as well as overseas allies, with little alteration.

The program, which has cost more than $380 billion so far, has come under fire because of delays and cost overruns due to technical issues. It has also faced pressure from an increasingly budget-conscious federal government.

Business Groups, Lawmakers Add Voices To Battle

In recent months, business groups and state legislators in Central Massachusetts and elsewhere have entered the fray, campaigning for the F-35 program to continue with full funding.

"I'm not in favor of fighting and killing and wars or anything like that, but I am in favor of keeping our people working," said Jeannie Hebert, president and CEO of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, which sent letters to elected officials on the issue. "We certainly don't want to see any more layoffs."

The local campaigning over the issue, which involves defense subcontractors in Springfield and just over the border in Nashua, N.H., as well as Wyman-Gordon, was organized by Connecticut lobbyist Anthony Ravosa of the Vince Group.

Ravosa said he can't comment on who hired him to work on the issue because of confidentiality rules, but he said he's been spreading awareness about the F-35 program in Massachusetts and has found organizations here quick to understand its significance.

"I'm trying to bring a very, very local perspective to this issue," he said. "These are real jobs, real families."

W. Stuart Loosemore, director of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he learned about the issue from Ravosa and, after researching it himself, decided it was an important fight for the chamber to get involved in.

Loosemore said the F-35 program is both a significant source of local jobs and a necessity for national security.

"The idea is to replace planes that were designed, built in the '60s and '70s. We don't drive cars (made in those decades)," he said. "I mean, we do, but they have an antique plate on them."

But not everyone agrees that the F-35 program, at least in its current form, is a necessity.

In a joint report released last year, the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) and the U.S. Public Interest Research group recommended cancelation of the program and said the planned F-35s could be replaced with lower-cost planes like F-16 or F/A-18 fighters. If Congress were to choose to keep some of the F-35s, the report suggested at least canceling Navy and Marine versions of the plane.

"The fact that local businesses are lobbying to keep the funding pipeline open is no huge surprise," said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the NTU. "Congress gets besieged with requests like that on a daily basis. That doesn't necessarily mean they're the ideal situation for taxpayers however."

Fight Over Defense Spending

The F-35 debate is part of a much larger policy question: how defense spending should be handled at a time when politicians are increasingly focused on budget issues. The U.S. government faces a "fiscal cliff" at the start of 2013, which, barring Congressional action, would trigger massive budget cuts, including a 9.4-percent reduction in discretionary defense spending. A recent report by the National Association of Manufacturers said that could mean a loss of 1 million private-sector jobs by 2014.

Already, spending flowing into the Massachusetts defense industry has declined in recent years, according to a study conducted by the UMass Donahue Institute for the Defense Technology Initiative. Contracts from the departments of Defense and Homeland Security to companies in the state rose dramatically, from $7.5 billion in 2003 to $15.5 billion in 2009, but then fell to $13.9 billion last year.

Brian Gilmore, a spokesman for the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said defense spending is very significant for the state, especially for the manufacturing industry, so everyone is watching Washington closely.

With debates about the federal budget in the news for many months, he said, "at this point we would all hope for some kind of closure." But, he added, it won't come right away.

"I don't think we'll know anything until after the election at best," he said.

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