Hundreds of Massachusetts jobs are in the balance as the Defense Department is expected on Thursday to propose a one-time funding cut to a military communications project being developed by General Dynamics in Taunton.
Company and congressional officials expect the General Dynamics contract to build a mobile high-speed data communications network for troops in the field to be included on a list of suggested budget cuts the Pentagon is scheduled to submit to Congress Thursday. The proposed $414 million cut — about half of the project’s current annual appropriation — could result in the loss of hundreds of jobs at the Taunton factory, and possibly at other subcontractors in Massachusetts, company officials said.
“This program can’t take a 50 percent hit and still effectively deliver,” General Dynamics C4 Systems president Chris Marzilli said. “Why would you give up hundreds of millions of dollars on a successful program and run the risk of breaking it long term?”
Called WIN-T, for Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, the system lets troops communicate and exchange data such as video surveillance via satellite link, a vital feature in mountainous terrain where older, line-of-sight technology is not reliable. An early version of the system is currently deployed, but it can be used only in stationary locations; the next version would allow troops to communicate while on the move in remote areas.
Though not all of the 1,000 or so employees at the General Dynamics facility in Taunton work on the project, Marzilli said, the company may not be able to keep the plant open if it loses the Warfighter funding. More than a dozen Massachusetts-based subcontractors also work on the Warfighter network; it was not immediately clear how those companies would be affected.
Although the Pentagon plans to restore the Warfighter network’s funding next year, Marzilli said, the uncertain election-year political climate and the possibility of even more cuts in defense spending make the project vulnerable. And even if the government restores the money, Marzilli said, the company may have difficulty getting back enough skilled workers to resume development of the system.
The expected proposal is part of a larger effort by Pentagon planners to find money to pay for cost overruns elsewhere in the military budget. While the Pentagon would not comment Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress earlier this month that higher fuel prices, among other operational costs, are forcing the government to redirect money.
The threatened cuts at General Dynamics may be just the beginning for companies that rely on military contracts; the Pentagon is preparing to streamline itself as operations in the Middle East wind down, and massive federal budget cuts mandated by Congress for 2013 are likely to hit military spending hard.
Those cuts would significantly affect the Massachusetts economy. The state received nearly $14 billion in military and Homeland Security contracts last year, and the author of a recent analysis of defense business in the Bay State estimated as many as 30,000 jobs are at risk because cuts loom.
The threat to the General Dynamics contract has stirred protest from members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation.
“The Army should not raid funding from one of their most important battlefield communications programs,” Republican Senator Scott Brown said in a statement. “It is totally unacceptable, and I will continue to strongly oppose this request because it needlessly harms a critical program and threatens hundreds of Massachusetts jobs.”
US Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat whose district includes the Taunton facility, said that while he generally supports cutting military spending, especially on nuclear weapons and outdated systems, he wants the Warfighter network to be spared.
“I think this is a very good program,” Frank said. “There are some programs that are unnecessary, but this is battlefield support for our troops . . . I don’t want to lose the possibility of using it in the future.”
The latest version of the Warfighter system was tested by the military this spring, and General Dynamics officials say it performed well, although official go-ahead to complete deployment of the system to eight brigades is not expected until September. The contract got an appropriation of $838 million for the current fiscal year, but none of that money has been spent so far, making it a target for Pentagon planners with other bills to pay.
In the meantime, Marzilli said, workers at the Taunton plant are anxious.
“People are concerned, and they’re rightfully concerned,” he said. “They’re having trouble understanding how a program that’s going so well, that’s so relevant, is imperiled like that. It’s inconsistent.”
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