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Critics fear brain drain in aerospace

A Pentagon official charged with overseeing acquisitions raised a few eyebrows this month during an interview about recent Pentagon spending cuts.

“It’s not about jobs,” Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, told Defense News magazine. “It’s about certain kinds of jobs, very rare kinds of skills that are not easily replicated in the commercial world, and if allowed to erode, would be difficult to rebuild.”

Carter’s comments were immediately seized on by critics of his boss, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

“There really is a looming crisis in the work force,” Fred Downey, vice president for national security for the Aerospace Industries Association, the aerospace industry’s mouthpiece in Washington, D.C.

Gates’ critics have opened up a new front in the battle about the defense budget, warning that defense industry professionals could permanently turn away from the industry if he continues to slash large weapons programs.

With Gates’ effort to end production of the F-22 now all but accomplished, the flash point about aerospace development appears to be the development of a new, long-range bomber.

The Pentagon has long envisioned a new bomber, to be called the B-3, only to see the project repeatedly delayed.

Downey now warns that engineers with the ability to design stealth capabilities may not wait much longer. “There is a reason to be concerned about the impact of policy decisions,” Downey said. “If we keep pushing (the B-3), the first thing that will erode is the design capability.”

SOMETHING EXCITING TO DO

Is the movement of personnel within Middle Georgia, the so called “aerospace corridor,” an indication of greater trends in the industry?

At Robins Air Force Base, where engineers are more concerned with maintaining and updating aircraft rather than building new ones, engineering work has accelerated.

“Our two greatest needs at this time are engineers — highly qualified engineers — and aircraft mechanics,” said Max Wyche, Warner Robins Air Logistics Center personnel director.

The base hires anywhere between 150 to 200 engineers annually, holding steady even as unemployment skyrocketed in the past year. Many of those engineers have come directly from the private aerospace industry.

Work to keep existing aircraft in the skies continues, even while work to build new aircraft has stalled. This summer, bowing to a veto threat from the White House, the House and Senate ended production of the F-22, a fighter produced largely in Marietta.

The work force at aerospace companies declined 3 percent in the past year — primarily because of the Pentagon’s program cuts, not just the global recession, according to the AIA.

“If we don’t produce something exciting, the engineers are going to go where they do find something to exciting to do,” Downey said. “The only way I see to do that is to build exciting things.”

When aerospace engineers leave the defense industry, “the brain drain is permanent more times than not,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense scholar with the conservative Heritage Foundation and frequent critic of the Obama-Gates Pentagon. “Historically, designers and engineers who work on defense contracts will permanently relocate.”

Lawmakers are scrambling to avoid this scenario with the B-3. In a House spending bill passed this year, $250 million was authorized to keep the B-3 development team at work, even as production of the aircraft continues to be delayed.

A Senate spending bill authorizes $140 million for the same purpose.

“We couldn’t lose the team,” said Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga. “If you lost that, reconstructing (the B-3 team) is very difficult to do.”

With the B-3 and other programs, it remains to be seen if Congress and the Pentagon can keep aerospace engineers from leaving the military’s payroll.

To contact military writer Thomas L. Day, call 744-4489.

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