WASHINGTON – “Don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so.”
That was the text message I got last week from a well-placed source in the defense industry reacting to the news the Pentagon had decided it was going to cut its purchase of littoral combat ships by 20, from 52 to 32.
While the U.S. Navy has not reached a final conclusion about the LCS program, it is certain the Mobile-based Austal USA is in a difficult spot.
Jo Bonner’s departure from Congress last year left a void for the program. For all the criticisms of Bonner and his willingness to go along with the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, the six-and-one-third-term congressman was an ardent supporter of the LCS-2 Independence class of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program.
However, five months without representation, the election of the now most junior member of Congress, Bradley Byrne, along with the ongoing rumor that the program would see cuts, and the odds are not in Austal’s favor.
Alabama’s long-time Washington, D.C. breadwinner, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, has consistently insisted the program won’t be touched under his watch and has cited his track record of bringing home federal government money as evidence. Shelby’s junior counterpart Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, is arguing that news of cutbacks goes back on a previously agreed upon deal. He has vowed to fight the Pentagon’s efforts in this regard.
“The 52 number is not a wish list, but a formally established requirement,” Sessions said last week immediately following the report of the potential Navy cutback. “Our combatant commanders around the globe are anxious to have the ships and the presence they bring. I intend to fight against this proposal and I will continue to fight for LCS. This ship is a critical part of our nation’s need to return to a 300-ship Navy.”
While Alabama LCS advocates argue in favor of the program, opponents — very vocal opponents at that — of the ship counter by calling it overpriced and likely underperforming.
Last week, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates debuted his memoir, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.” Overlooked among the criticisms Gates had in his book for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama was the tension between Congress and the Pentagon, particularly over authorizing expenditures for “unnecessary” weapons systems.
“Whether it is supporting weapon systems or supporting expenditures that are no longer necessary or could be better used for other things, opposing or shutting down something to save money in their district or their state, or even in such things as the Afghanistan surge,” Gates said in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity promoting his book last week.
From the outside looking in, particularly among naval warfare experts, the LCS-2 Independence class, has failed to impress. In the cesspool known as the defense contracting business — an industry so dirty and cutthroat that makes a business familiar to Alabamians like big-time college football recruiting look pure and wholesome — that means something.
Proponents of the LCS-1 Freedom class littoral combat ship built by Marinette Marine in Wisconsin, the chief competitor to Austal USA’s version, will seize upon what the critics have to say. Those criticisms will be the argument eventually taken to Capitol Hill, where southwest Alabama will be lacking in firepower with a newly sworn-in congressman in Byrne, R-Montrose.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a reoccurring theme for the area’s economic development over the last several years. It’s much like Charlie Brown, Lucy van Pelt and the football. Mobile leaders talk up and cater to an industry looking to locate near the city only to have it pulled away for whatever reason, whether it’s talk of an auto racing facility near Prichard or the hopes of Airbus’ manufacturing facilities building the KC-X refueling tanker aircraft for U.S. Air Force.
A local economy reliant on a handful of big players is subject to a lot of pain and suffering if something goes awry.
In 1969, the Pentagon closed Brookley Air Force Base, which at the time was the largest military base closure in U.S. history. That closure eliminated 10 percent of jobs for the local workforce according to historical data and it took the city years, if not decades, to recover from that massive hit.
Mobilians should know better than to put faith in Alabama’s elected representation in Washington, D.C.
The good news is that Mobile has a new mayor with Sandy Stimpson and as far as I can tell, he seems to be willing to do things a little bit differently than the cast of statesmen that have led the city over 40 years.
If the city’s leadership looks from within and improves elements like the public education system, infrastructure and public safety, then industry will be looking to come to Mobile. It won’t require what has come to be a constant obsession with the clout of elected representation and their committee assignments.
That’s easier said than done, but if that lesson had been learned back in 1969, where would the city be now?