Monday, April 6, 2009

Gulf Coast/defense budget

It’s too early to say how much of the budget proposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday will come to fruition. But the fiscal 2010 funding does show a shift from the tools used for conventional warfare to those needed for asymmetric warfare.

For the Gulf Coast region the budget was a mixed bag. Gates affirmed a commitment to the Joint Strike Fighter, and wants to put more money into Special Operations as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. But for shipbuilding there were some surprises. Gates wants additional Littoral Combat Ships, but also wants to send Northrop Grumman’s DDG-1000 project to Maine.

How much of an impact entrenched interests will have on the final budget is unclear. But as presented, decisions on several programs do point to a new mindset at the Pentagon over the threats the nation faces. And that could help the Gulf Coast region in the aerospace sector.

Notable is that Gates wants to spend more money on Special Operations and the aviation-related tools of their trade. Gates said he wants to grow Special Operations capabilities by increasing personnel by more than 2,800, about 5 percent, and buying more special forces-optimized lift, mobility, and refueling aircraft.

Special Operations makes up a sizeable portion of the military presence in the Gulf Coast. Hurlburt Field, Fla., is home to the Air Force Special Operations Command, and nearby Eglin Air Force Base is the designated home for the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group. In Mississippi, Stennis Space Center hosts Special Boat Team 22, which specializes in riverine missions and works closely with Navy SEALS.

Gates also wants to spend more money on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), the type of work that’s more and more handled by unmanned aerial vehicles. Gates is proposing a 62 percent increase in capability over the current level, and wants to initiate more research and development on ISR enhancements and experimental platforms. It’s become so important, it will now be permanently funded in the base budget.

This emphasis on ISR will have an impact on the Gulf Coast. Moss Point, Miss., is home to the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center, which builds unmanned aerial vehicles – Global Hawks and Fire Scouts – that perform ISR duties. (Note: A story on the growing importance of ISR and some of the platforms used by the Navy, including Fire Scout and Global Hawk, appears in the current issue of Seapower) Navarre, Fla., is home to an AeroVironment UAV training and support center. At Stennis Space Center there are multiple companies that work in the field of geospatial technologies. And the activities related to both Special Operations and IRS on the Gulf Coast is also considerable. Pensacola, Fla., is home to the Navy’s Center for Information Dominance at Corry Station, and electronics are taught at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.

F-35 and tanker
Gates said he’s committed to building a fifth generation tactical fighter capability that can be produced in quantity at sustainable costs. He wants to increase the budget for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from $6.8 billion to $11.2 billion. He recommends increasing the buy from the 14 bought in fiscal year 2009 to 30 in fiscal year 2010. Over the next five years he wants to buy 513 of the Lockheed Martin F-35s, and ultimately have a fleet of 2,443. Eglin Air Force Base is scheduled to become the home of the Joint Strike Fighter Training Center, which will train pilots from all the branches, and additional funding for the program ensures the economic boon Northwest Florida expects from the center.

Another project mentioned by Gates that will impact the Gulf Coast is the Air Force aerial refueling tanker. Several weeks ago there was some talk that the Obama administration might seek to delay the project, but that was put to rest Monday when Gates said he wants to maintain the KC-X aerial refueling tanker schedule and funding, with the intent to solicit bids this summer.

Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team have been competing for the $35 billion contract to build tankers, and it’s significant for the Gulf Coast because if Northrop/EADS win, the tankers will be assembled in Mobile, Ala. There’s also a good chance Mobile will be building cargo planes if it wins the tankers. The spinoff, through jobs and suppliers, will be felt in Mississippi and Northwest Florida.

But there’s still an effort underway, spearheaded by Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, to have the Pentagon split the buy between Northrop and Boeing. The idea is that the one that winds up building the most cost-effective model will eventually get the majority of the contract to build planes.

Gates included in the budget request funds to complete the purchase of two Navy destroyers in fiscal year 2010. But it is contingent upon being able to work out contracts to allow the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer to all be built by General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works in Maine. Right now, one of those ships is supposed to be built by Northrop Grumman at its Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard. In return, Gates wants to restart the DDG-51 Aegis destroyer program at the Pascagoula yard.

Gates said the DDG-1000 program will end at three ships, and the DDG-51 would continue to be built in both yards. He said that if the effort to build the DDG-1000 at Bath fails, the department “will likely build only a single prototype DDG-1000 at Bath and then review our options for restarting production of the DDG-51."

He also threw out a warning of sorts.

“If the department is left to pursue this alternative, it would unfortunately reduce our overall procurement of ships and cut workload in both shipyards,” he said in his prepared remarks. Gates also wants to delay the Navy CG-X next generation cruiser program to revisit both the requirements and acquisition strategy.

The Pentagon also plans to delay amphibious ship and sea-basing programs such as the 11th Landing Platform Dock (LPD) ship and the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) SHIP to fiscal year 2011 in order to assess costs and analyze the amount of these capabilities the nation needs.

Gates also plans to increase the purchase of Littoral Combat Ships, a key capability for presence, stability, and counterinsurgency operations in coastal regions, from two to three ships in fiscal year 2010 with the goal of eventually acquiring 55 of these ships. Austal USA is currently building a prototype of the ship.

While the jury is still out on what the final budget will be, at least the outlines presented by Gates Monday shows the Gulf Coast may be involved in fields that will continue to win Pentagon funding.

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