By: Richard Lee
Staff at Sikorsky Aircraft can be assured that they have at least two friends from Connecticut’s delegation in Congress as the helicopter manufacturer battles the challenges of sequestration and overseas competition.
The Stratford company on Wednesday hosted U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., for a two-hour visit to the sprawling plant on the banks of the Housatonic River, and they were adamant that defense spending for helicopters must be preserved.
DeLauro and Blumenthal bristled after touring the plan, insisting that a bipartisan effort, incorporating revenue increases and budget cuts, is needed to end sequestration, which has resulted in across-the-board reductions in spending on defense, as well as domestic and international non-military programs.
“Sequestration is downright foolish when it comes to military spending. It’s abhorrent. We ought not be making broad cuts to the military budget,” Blumenthal said. “I’ve seen how these helicopters are saving lives in Afghanistan.”
It’s apparent that sequestration will cause military contractors to reduce work hours and lay off workers, DeLauro said. In late June, Sikorsky, a unit of United Technologies in Hartford, said it was laying off 200 employees. The layoffs affect about 1 percent of the company’s 18,000-person global workforce.
The majority of the layoffs were in Connecticut, where Sikorsky has 8,500 employees — the largest company employee population by far. The rest are spread across its operations in eight other states.
“We’re very concerned about what sequestration means to the defense industry and this state,” she said, lamenting the overall impact of sequestration.
DeLauro is a member of the Labor, Health, Education and Human Services appropriations subcommittee, and she said federal spending in those areas has been cut 22 percent.
The Pentagon also is making a mistake in spending $572 million for 30 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters for use by Afghanistan’s air force, instead of buying comparable helicopters from Sikorsky, said DeLauro and Blumenthal. The plan is to buy 86 by the end of 2016.
DeLauro said she led the fight in Congress to prevent the military from purchasing the Russian helicopters from Rosoboronexport, but the Pentagon found funding in its 2012 budget.
Blumenthal, a member of the Committee on Armed Services, said he, too, opposes the deal, particularly when combined with Russia’s continued support of the Syrian government and its protection of U.S. security leaker Edward Snowden.
“That is agenda item number one when I go back to Washington. The contract with the Russians is an abomination,” he said, adding that taxpayers’ dollars are funding the deal.
As the Pentagon adopts a strategy for a more mobile, incisive military, helicopters should play more of a role, said Blumenthal, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve.
“These are weapons platforms,” he said.
DeLauro and Blumenthal voiced support for Sikorsky teaming with Lockheed Martin to replace the president’s aging fleet of helicopters.
Sikorsky, the sole bidder for the contract, has proposed retrofitting its S-92 helicopter and adding radar and communications systems supplied by Lockheed. In all, the fleet of 21 helicopters, dating back to the late 1970s and 1980s, would be replaced. The Navy is scheduled to award the contract by the end of June next year.
The White House helicopters — dubbed “white tops” for their distinctive white roofs — are staffed by Marine Corps aviators and referred to as “Marine One” when carrying the president. The fleet currently uses two types of helicopters, one based on the Black Hawk airframe and one based on the Sea King. Both are Sikorsky-built, and are at least 30 years old.
“Damn the torpedoes, and full-steam ahead,” she said. “Let’s get it back to Stratford.”
Sikorsky is in continuous communication with the Connecticut delegation, said Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson, as defense spending is the cross-hairs of many members of Congress.
“We stay in close contact with the Connecticut delegation and our other elected officials,” he said. “The support they provide in helping us to remain competitive and grow, particularly in times of economic uncertainty as we have been experiencing for a while now, is very important and deeply appreciated.”
$25 billion industry
In March, the state Office of Fiscal Analysis warned that the state could lose about $906.5 million in defense spending as a result of sequestration action in the federal budget, severely impacting the state’s $25 billion defense industry. At the time, Sikorsky said it was bracing for cutbacks.
The White House in March had predicted that more than 3,000 defense workers in the state could be furloughed because of the Department of Defense budget cuts.
A study by George Mason University forecast more than 36,000 job losses in Connecticut’s defense industry, creating a $4.2 billion drop in gross state product. The Center for Security Policy placed state defense cuts at $2.2 billion this year.
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