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Arms plan has pain, some gain for N.E.

Gates lays out cuts in weapons spending; New investments could cushion blow of job losses

By Bryan Bender and Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / April 7, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates yesterday proposed far-reaching cuts to weapons programs, a move that put at risk thousands of jobs in Massachusetts and Connecticut. But he also laid out plans for new investments in shipbuilding and other technologies assembled in New England that would cushion the economic blow to the region.

The plan marks the most far-reaching changes in weapons spending in decades, calling for the termination or delay of more than a dozen conventional weapons systems. The intent is to free up billions of dollars for new intelligence-gathering systems, an expansion of special operations forces, and the acquisition of other tools Gates said troops need to prevail in the type of irregular warfare that has bedeviled the US military in recent years.

"This is a reform budget, reflecting lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet also addressing the range of other potential threats around the world, now and in the future," Gates told reporters at his much-anticipated preview of the Pentagon budget.

The cutbacks, if approved by Congress, would cost jobs at several New England-based defense companies where components of at least three major programs on Gates's hit list are built: the Air Force's advanced F-22 fighter jet, the high-tech Zumwalt class destroyer, and the Army's ambitious Future Combat System.

Nearly 2,000 employees at United Technologies Corp. in Connecticut build the engines and electrical power systems for the F-22 program, which will cease production next year under the Gates plan.

Waltham-based Raytheon Co. has 2,000 employees in Tewksbury, Andover, and Portsmouth, R.I., who are working on the computerized combat systems for the Zumwalt class destroyer program. Gates said yesterday the Navy will buy no more than three of the warships, and possibly just one if contractors can't reduce the costs.

At the same time, a host of high-tech industries in suburban Boston - from General Dynamics' C4 Systems in Taunton to iRobot in Bedford - are helping to design key components of the Future Combat System, a set of new ground combat vehicles for the Army. Gates said the system is ill suited to today's conflicts and no longer worth the investment.

The impact of the cuts could be felt even wider, according to analysts, because dozens of smaller local companies, such as a North Grafton metalworks that shapes titanium for the F-22, serve as suppliers for the larger companies and depend on military contracts.

In a statement yesterday, Erin Dick, a spokeswoman for United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney Military Engines, said if the Pentagon stops ordering F-22 aircraft Pratt & Whitney would have to halt orders from its suppliers within months, leading them to "scale down our [F-22] workforce as required."

But even with the loss of these key defense programs, some contractors in the region would get other work under Gates's proposal.

For example, losses at Pratt & Whitney division could be offset by Gates's decision to increase production of another new jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to retired Air Force Brigadier General Donald J. Quenneville, executive director of the Defense Technology Initiative.

"I thought New England did better than I would have guesstimated," said Quenneville, whose group supports the region's defense industry. "They came up with a novel approach to future weapons systems that helped New England out."

While Gates called for limiting the Zumwalt destroyer purchase, he proposed that General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works in Maine build all of the hulls rather than dividing the work between the Maine yard and another builder in Mississippi.

"That's encouraging," said Kendell Pease, a General Dynamics spokeswoman, adding that it could help stabilize employment at its Maine operations.

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said the reallocation would mean "a steady workload for many, many years."

Gates also proposed accelerating the purchase of the Littoral Combat Ship, a smaller attack vessel designed to operate closer to shore. That program is also under contract to the Maine shipyard.

Pease also praised Gates's plans to develop a new ballistic missile submarine, which could benefit General Dynamics' Electric Boat division in Connecticut.

"These decisions on shipbuilding, I think, do a pretty good job . . . of taking care of the industrial base there and trying to even out things in terms of employment in the workforce," Gates said.

Meanwhile, Gates wants to accelerate production of Raytheon's new Standard missile, which would help soften the blow at Raytheon. Jonathan Kasle, a Raytheon spokesman, said yesterday it was too early to say how the changes would affect its Massachusetts workforce.

"We will be assessing the complete budget recommendation, not just the highly visible pieces, so that we can examine the full picture," he said.

Gates's budget drew praise from watchdog groups who have long criticized the Pentagon for spending huge sums of taxpayer dollars on high-tech weapons that do little to advance US security. "We applaud his rigor in wielding the budget axe," the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense said in a statement.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, credited Gates "for having the courage to end production of the F-22 fighter jet and to significantly scale back and restructure the Future Combat Systems."

Gates's fight to get the plan adopted, however, has just begun. Though he has the public support of the Pentagon's top generals, members of Congress questioned some of his decisions minutes after he made the plan public.

"If we stop the F-22 program now, our industrial base will suffer a major blow before the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter reaches full-rate production," Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, said in a statement. "This would result in the loss of thousands of jobs in Connecticut - the skilled workers we will need to support the F-35 in just a few years."

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers took issue with Gates's proposal to slash $1.4 billion, or roughly 15 percent, from the weapons budget of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

Representative Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, indicated that many lawmakers will need convincing on the entire plan, reminding Gates in a statement that "the buck stops with Congress, which has the critical Constitutional responsibility to decide whether to support these proposals."

Gates said he was prepared to make his case.

"There's no question that a lot of these decisions will be controversial," he said. "My hope is that, as we have tried to do here in this building, that the members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole."