Military overhaul to have mixed impact on Connecticut’s defense industry

Washington — President Obama’s plan to overhaul the military and trim hundreds of billions of dollars from the defense budget brings both good and bad news to Connecticut’s defense industry, lawmakers and analysts say.

With the end of the Iraq war and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan winding down, Obama and the Pentagon have rolled out a plan for a leaner, meaner military. It would place less emphasis on ground troops, keep a continued focus on the Middle East but shift some of the Pentagon’s attention to Asia. The Army and Marines would shrink, and more emphasis would be placed on the Navy and Air Force.

The strategy, announced last week, is meant to accommodate about $489 billion in defense cuts over the coming 10 years as called for in a budget deal with Congress last summer.

That overhaul is expected to shake up Connecticut’s large military contractors like United Technologies and General Dynamic’s Electric Boat -– and the hundreds of subcontractors in the state that depend on these defense giants.

Connecticut’s defense industry won Pentagon contracts worth nearly $95 billion between 2000 and 2010, making the state the third-highest in contract awards per capita, behind Virginia and Alaska.

The importance of the defense industry to the state’s economy is not lost on Connecticut’s congressional delegation.

Connecticut’s senators, who both serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee, are split over the administration’s plans for the armed forces.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he supports most of Obama’s initiatives. But independent Sen. Joe Lieberman is strongly opposed.

“I think it’s very alarming in the impact it will have on our national security,” Lieberman said. “It also could cost us a lot of (defense jobs) and that could hurt Connecticut.”

Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, said the impact of the overhaul of the nation’s military forces on Connecticut’s defense industry would initially be mixed — but eventually it would force all defense companies in the state to downsize.

“If there’s less money for the military, then companies who make weapons programs will be feeling the pain,” he said.

Thompson, however, said the new focus on the Navy and closer monitoring of the Pacific would benefit Electric Boat submarine production in Groton, at least in the short run.

“They are going to sell a lot of submarines because we are going to need a lot of submarines,” Thompson said.

The 2012 federal budget provides $3.2 billion to continue construction of two submarines and $1.4 billion to begin plans for a new generation of subs.

Electric Boat spokesman Robert Hamilton said the funding allows the company to continue operations “pretty much as planned” this year, and maintain current levels of employment at the Groton shipyard.

But Hamilton declined to comment on the impact of future budget cuts for the military.

Pratt & Whitney, which builds the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s engine in Connecticut, would also likely benefit from the administration’s new strategic plan as the Navy and Air Force require more planes, Thompson said, especially if the company snares a lucrative contract for a future long-range bomber that’s on the Pentagon’s wish list.

“Pratt & Whitney is an odds-on favorite for it,” Thompson said.

But a reduced reliance on ground troops may hurt Sikorsky Aircraft’s helicopter production in Connecticut, Thompson said.

Sikorsky did not return calls requesting comment.

Blumenthal said Sikorsky’s helicopters will be needed to transport “a more agile and more mobile ground force.”

“We’re also going to have to replace a lot of helicopters that have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our allies are also going to need them,” Blumenthal said.

But Lieberman said the new strategic plan would spell disaster for Connecticut and the nation because it’s being forced on the military by concerns over the deficit, not an assessment of global dangers.

“This change in strategy is being proposed by budgetary necessity,” Lieberman said. “It’s very dangerous.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, disagrees. Courtney’s district includes Electric Boat.

“On balance I thought it is a very smart plan to focus our strategic line of vision on Asia and the Pacific,” he said. “It’s also much better than across-the-board cuts.”

Yet Courtney, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Connecticut’s economy should begin to wean itself from its dependence on defense dollars.

“The state should absolutely focus on other growth areas,” he said.

Greater details of the new plan for the U.S. military will be revealed when Obama submits his 2013 budget at the end of January or early February.

But another huge danger looms for Connecticut’s defense industry.

Congress’ failure to find an additional $1.5 trillion in cuts means military spending may be slashed by another $500 billion to $600 billion next year under a process known as “sequestration. “

“If that happens, I believe there would be a move to kill the Joint Strike Fighter,” Lieberman said.