Military plan to delay submarine, engine projects could hurt Connecticut towns

Oct. 8, 2010: The submarine USS Providence transits the Thames River as it departs Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., in this file photo.

Oct. 8, 2010: The submarine USS Providence transits the Thames River as it departs Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., in this file photo.  (Reuters)

The sweeping defense cuts outlined by Pentagon chief Leon Panetta will likely be felt all across the country, as the military moves to shrink the Army and push off several equipment purchases. 

But Connecticut companies could be particularly hard hit, as the Defense Department looks to postpone the ordering of submarines built along the state's southern coast, as well as fighter jets whose engines are made by an East Hartford-based aircraft company. 

Several members of the state's Connecticut delegation also expressed concern about a new round of base consolidation -- with an eye on the vital submarine base in New London. 

"The proposal is dead on arrival," Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., as well as Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said in a statement. 

But while the impact on the New London base is unclear, officials expect the next Pentagon budget to at least delay the purchase of two types of submarines which are in development at a nearby facility in Groton, Conn. The company that makes them, General Dynamics Electric Boat, has already gone through several rounds of layoffs. The Pentagon proposal muddies the company's future, even as it looks to hire hundreds of engineers to begin designing the newest sub model. 

Tony Sheridan, president of the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, said the local community is watching to see how the cuts play out, since final details have not been released. 

"Are we concerned? Of course we're concerned. We're always concerned," he said. "But we don't want to overreact." 

But he cautioned against any move that would drain the submarine-building culture in the community. 

"The craftsmanship that's required to build a sophisticated machine like a submarine -- it's as much a part of the culture of the community as whaling was to New London (when it was a whaling town)," he said. "You just don't move that kind of business to another community. ... You'd have a dramatic loss of the skill sets that are required." 

He said Britain tried to do that, and only now is moving to retrain submarine workers to make up for the loss. "These are family affairs," he said. "Whole families that have worked nowhere else but building submarines, and incredibly proud of that." 

The Pentagon proposal would affect work on two types of submarines -- a so-called Virginia-class submarine, and the next generation ballistic missile submarine to replace what's known as the Ohio class. 

Originally, the federal government was expected to purchase nine Virginia-class subs from fiscal 2014 to 2018. The new plan would push one of the purchases back from 2014 to 2018. 

On the Ohio-class replacement, the original expectation was that the government would order a dozen subs between 2019 and the early 2030s. Design is already underway at Electric Boat. The new plan would delay that project by two years, presumably pushing off the start of construction to 2021. 

This would, at least, mean a delay in hiring new workers for Electric Boat. Plus waiting longer to work on both types of submarines could impact the cost because of inflation. 

Electric Boat spokesman Robert Hamilton told FoxNews.com the company is waiting to see what happens when Congress weighs in. 

"At this point, this is something we're just going to be keeping an eye on and watching very closely," he said. "It's very early in the process." 

In addition to the submarines, the new Pentagon plan would slow procurement of the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This hits home in Connecticut, since the engine is made at United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut. Dozens of states, though, are involved in the production of the F-35 -- part of the reason conversations about slowing or halting the project are met with resistance. 

Several other companies in Connecticut rely heavily on the Pentagon's budget decisions. Among them are Sikorsky Aircraft, which makes helicopters, and General Electric, which among other things makes engines for those helicopters. 

Sheridan said it doesn't appear as if Sikorsky or GE are impacted by the latest cuts, though he said the impact on Pratt & Whitney "certainly is a concern." 

While lawmakers have expressed concern about the possibility of the New London submarine base being caught up in base closures, Sheridan said he doubts that would happen. Since the latest round of cuts would be made with an eye toward deficit reduction, Sheridan said closing the sub base is unlikely as it could end up costing the Pentagon more money .