May 17, 2013 12:02:26 PM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Earlier this week, Sean O'Keefe, American Eurocopter parent company CEO , said cuts to the Pentagon budget under the "sequester" budget reduction plan could force the company to slash production of the UH-72 Lakota helicopter, which is produced at its Columbus facility.
O'Keefe, CEO of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company North America (EADS), made the statement in an editorial that appeared in a defense industry magazine.
EADS Director of Communication James Darcy said while company representatives are lobbying Congress to reconsider the proposed cuts, there would be alternative avenues for Eurocopter to continue manufacturing the aircraft and keep its 320 Columbus employees at work.
The budget originally set aside funding for 31 helicopters in Fiscal Year 2014 and 10 in FY 2015, but the proposed cuts would reduce the purchase to 10 in 2014 and none the following year, according to EADS Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Corporate Communications Guy Hicks. He said sequestration would require another $50 billion reduction to defense on top of another $50 billion cut passed two years ago as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. To date, more than 260 Lakotas have been produced.
O'Keefe suggested helicopters that are twice as costly to operate and maintain might be bought and re-purposed to replace the mission planned for the Lakotas when production began on them in 2006.
"It is like taking used Escalade SUVs and converting them to do the job of a mid-size pickup and the gas bills to go with it," O'Keefe wrote. "The Army's decision also puts at risk the option of a Lakota variant as the next-generation Armed Aerial Scout. This assures that it will keep the inventory of 1960s OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters, which cost three times as much to operate and require constant maintenance."
Hicks admitted there was a "real risk" of the reductions continuing, but lawmakers should know the value of the manufacturers who have produced 260 helicopters on time and on budget.
"The general mood of Congress is the President's budget has not been met with universal acceptance. We've got a job to do and we recognize it. The biggest arrow in our quiver to support the (Lakota) program is the fact that it is unblemished. This is an amazing program from a production and performance standpoint," Hicks said. "We have a tremendous workforce. They've demonstrated high quality of work they do. Clearly, the Lakota is the primary product that is manufactured and produced in (the Columbus) facility. It's an important and significant asset to the entire Eurocopter family. Because of their successful record, we're working hard to make sure members of Congress and others who would have impact understand how important the Lakota is to meeting both Army and National Guard requirements."
Darcy noted half of the employees at the Columbus facility are military veterans themselves who understand the vitality and versatility of the aircraft and importance of delivering it in a timely and cost-effective way. Forty-two states currently employ the Lakota and its design as a common support helicopter makes it an easier sell, he said.
"I think it's important to understand if the reductions are enacted this can still be a successful program and we can sell the aircraft for other roles ... We're aggressively pursuing opportunities to sell the aircraft for a variety of different roles," Darcy said. "This is the lowest cost to own or to operate of any United States military helicopter in production, so it's very attractive in that sense."
Joining Eurocopter in the push to restore funding for the Lakota is the Golden Triangle Development Link, which recently announced the company would be honored with its annual Industry of the Year designation later this month.
A link encouraging visitors of the site to write to representatives and ask them not to cut production of the aircraft is on the regional development agency's website at cldlink.org
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.