Bloomfield – As he weighs whether to support a U.S. military strike in Syria, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal visited a defense contractor Friday, a beneficiary of the increases in defense spending in New England during a decade of war.
Blumenthal, a Democrat who sits on the Armed Services Committee, watched as Kaman demonstrated an unmanned version of its K-MAX helicopter now used by U.S. Marines to deliver supplies in Afghanistan.
Holding a simple game controller in two hands, flight engineer Tony Fontana pushed a button and the helicopter rose straight up carrying a cargo net on a long tether below the gray-painted craft.
He flew it across the tarmac, then lowered and released the cargo. Bill Hart, a safety pilot was aboard, a requirement of testing the craft in FAA-controlled airspace. But Hart held up his arms in a look-no-hands gesture.
“It’s all automatic?” he asked Fontana
“All automatic,” Fontana replied.
Fontana says most of the flight is programmed, and the ground operator need only intercede with the remote controller when it’s time to release the cargo net, though a controller can take over the flight at any time.
As the U.S. removes equipment from Afghanistan, unmanned K-MAX helicopters can get to remote areas without subjecting ground convoys to improvised explosive devices or pilots to anti-aircraft fire, said Terrence P. Fogarty, an executive in Kaman’s unmanned aircraft group.
Unmanned flight, whether by missile-equipped drones or supply helicopters, has been one of the technological advances in a war-torn decade marked by higher spending by the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
Kaman’s political concern Friday was how Pentagon spending might be affected by the sequester, not Syria.
It says a successful test of resupplying Marines in Afghanistan by two unmanned helicopters since 2011 means greater sales, assuming the sequester does not force spending cuts.
Blumenthal said the issues of supplying the Defense Department have no relation to the issues around whether Congress should authorize President Obama to hit Syria with missiles, whose production was a $1.7 billion business in New England in 2011.
“To be very blunt and clear, the situation in Syria is entirely separate from defense industry spending, partly because what we make here in Connecticut can stand on its own as valuable to the country, regardless of what happens in Syria,” Blumenthal said.
But more than a decade of war and international instability have coincided with good times for the state’s defense contractors, according to a November 2012 report by the University of Massachusetts for the Defense Technology Initiative.
Spending on defense and homeland security increased by 85 percent in New England since 2003, hitting $34 billion in 2011 – with 38 percent of that sum being spent in Connecticut.
“The defense industry’s importance to the Connecticut economy has only grown in recent years,” the report said. “In 2011, 1,100 companies were awarded nearly $12.7 billion in Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security contracts, a 51 percent increase since 2003.”
The companies have 101,000 employees, more than 6 percent of the Connecticut workforce.
With defense billings of $47 million, Kaman was the 8th largest defense contractor in Connecticut in 2011, but 88 percent of defense spending in the state went to just two giant prime contractors, United Technologies and General Dynamics.
Blumenthal said the state’s contractors should continue to do well, even as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his view, the state is making the right defense products: submarines, helicopters and jet engines.
“My view is our future is bright, not because I hope for further conflict but because these kinds of products are essential to our national security,” Blumenthal said.
“Helicopters are part of our defense future,” Blumenthal said. They are essential to our national security, not just in the next six months in Syria, but in the next six or 60 years in the United States.”
Blumenthal said his position on Syria is unchanged: He has not decided whether to support the president's call for an authorization to launch an attack in reprisal for the use of poison gas.
He said he has no doubt that Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, was responsible, but he is undecided if a missile strike is the proper response.
“I am continuing to ask questions that need to be answered before I will make a decision. Certainly I approach this decision in a very deliberate, cautious way, because so much is at stake," Blumenthal said. "There are enormous risks in action as well as in inaction."