Panelists discuss national defense and budget cuts in Warner Robins

jmink@macon.comMarch 26, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Facing uncertainty. Learning to do more with less. Adapting to new technology in the face of budget cuts.

Those are the tasks defense contractors face as the Department of Defense endures budget cuts. Executives from some of those companies spoke Tuesday at a roundtable discussion, which focused on developing new technologies and warfare tactics in the midst of cuts that significantly affect their customers.

It’s an important issue in the midst of global turmoil, particularly with the recent news that North Korea has issued new threats to United States military bases, said 8th District U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ashburn, during the Dixie Crow Symposium at the Museum of Aviation.

Scott, who voted against the cuts known as sequestration, said he expects the cuts to be included in the president’s upcoming budget. An estimated $500 billion of those would impact the military. He also expects the budget will establish another round of reviews by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC. Hundreds of installations across the country have been closed or realigned during previous such reviews.

“I’ve never supported BRAC,” Scott said in an interview after the discussion.

Scott was joined by university representatives, as well as executives from companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon.

Those executives highlighted several issues that plague their companies and the country’s defense. There are the common problems of employee demographics -- a high number of retirement-aged workers and entry-level workers, with few in between -- and adapting to ever-changing technology.

“It’s a human versus machine issue,” said Paul Summers, program director at Boeing. “Machines are getting faster and smarter, and there’s only so much a human can do.” Then, there are budget-related issues. Some companies have implemented furloughs and layoffs to prepare for sequestration cuts, and others are losing workers who are leaving the business. They are dealing with dwindling supply bases. And there’s the issue of cutting costs at a time when modernization of equipment is vital.

When it comes to managing the federal budget, specifically Defense Department dollars, “What are you people thinking up there?” retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon asked of Scott. McMahon, who moderated the discussion, is president of the 21st Century Partnership.

When sequestration came up for a vote in Congress, lawmakers from both parties promised that the cuts would never happen.

“But here we are,” Scott said.

The truth is, the country is in serious debt and is borrowing money “from people who are not our friends,” Scott said. “Sooner or later we’re going to have to pay that money back.”

The issue is a lack of focus. For example, a BRAC would not save money immediately -- in fact, it would cost money up front, he said. The savings would come over a period of 10 years, but the government needs to cut spending now, Scott said.

In the meantime, many companies that contract with the Defense Department are waiting to see what happens in Washington and are trying to reserve the capabilities they have acquired so far. Personnel costs continue to rise and contracts are stagnant, so “it’s not a question of maximizing,” said Mike Broadway, a corporate business development representative for Lockheed Martin.

Scott asked whether those problems were due to deficiencies in Congress or Defense. Currently, there is a lack of trust between the Defense and Congress, Scott said, mentioning some inefficient processes within Defense.

“You’re right, the process is broken,” Broadway said, highlighting unclear instructions and lengthy waits to get information through the Pentagon. “But at the same time, the processes on the Hill aren’t terribly efficient either.”

A big problem in Congress is a lack of understanding of military processes, Broadway said, and educating lawmakers on such matters is extremely time consuming.

Still, there is a positive side. Companies are still investing in technologies -- several officials discussed groundbreaking projects and research. Student programs, such as Mercer University’s applied research unit called MERC, are on the upswing. A record number of freshmen recently entered Mercer’s engineering program and, because the unit is nonprofit, it generally can perform work for less money, said Ray Mitchell, director of Advanced Programs for MERC.

When it comes to federal budget woes, though, many defense contractors are simply watching and waiting.

“We don’t have the ground rules yet -- the Department of Defense does not have the ground rules. We don’t know what it’s going to do to ongoing programs,” Broadway said. “Quite frankly, it’s a question mark for us.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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