May 31, 2013 10:50:04 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
A contingent of American Eurocopter employees and executives, as well as family members and state leaders, came together Wednesday to call on Congress to reconsider spending cuts that would slash production of the UH-72A Lakota Helicopter.
Production of the aircraft used by multiple branches of the country's military is on a list of $50 million in Department of Defense budget reductions as a result of sequestration. The proposed cuts would bring funding for a combined 41 models down to 10, effectively leaving about 320 employees of the Columbus location with no helicopters to make in 2015 and only 10 to build in 2014.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and U.S. congressmen Roger Wicker, Alan Nunnelee and Gregg Harper joined Marc Paganini, President and CEO of American Eurocopter, and Sean O'Keefe, CEO of parent company EADS North America, in a rally to leave all funding for production of the helicopters untouched. Employees' ability to deliver each of the 260-plus models produced on time and on budget, as well as the versatility and cost-effectiveness of the helicopter itself ($5.5 million per unit) to the troops it serves should serve as compelling reasons for keeping the funding set aside previously unchanged, they said. They vowed to fight to get other congressmen on board with that view.
"We know that the men and women of the military depend on our system. They use it for search and rescue, for disaster relief, for homeland security and for many other duties. Our armed forces need Eurocopter to safely and effectively carry out their missions," Paganini said. "Local and statewide, elected officials have been supportive of us. The presence of this facility has transformed the local economy. (This) is a defining moment for the Mississippi aerospace industry and for its workers and their families. I have invested 10 years of my life to build this helicopter center of excellence and I'm proud of what we have done together and remain engaged and committed to ensure a bright future for (employees)."
O'Keefe said if the budget cuts proceed as proposed, company leaders will look into other options to keep employees at work, but he feels events such as the one held at the Columbus facility demonstrate how much of a need there is for the Lakota model and why production should continue as scheduled over the next several years.
"Everybody from the Secretary of the Army on down has testified to the fact that they believe the performance of this helicopter and the incredible capabilities it has is exemplary and they would not otherwise want to cut this were it not for the budget challenges they're facing," O'Keefe said. "I'm not preparing a contingency plan because we intend to win this argument on its merits. Why think about, 'What do you do as an alternative?' We'll deal with those problems if they ever occur, but as it stands right now there are too many requirements and too much demand for this platform at the price and efficiency that it offers to terminate it right now, and I think that kind of wisdom will win out."
Nunnelee said Americans have an obligation to support the men and women who defend freedom around the globe, patrol the United States borders ensuring national security and aid in disaster relief.
"Part of that obligation is that we make sure they have the training and tools necessary to complete their mission. At the same time, I think as a government we have an obligation to the American taxpayer, and that obligation is that we utilize those resources in the most efficient and effective way possible," Nunnelee said. "It is our job in Washington as part of the team to make sure the Department of Defense is effectively and efficiently using those tax dollars, and in my judgment that it is the Lakota helicopter. There may be other platforms, but there is not another platform that is as effective and efficient."
Joining in the push to restore Lakota funding were representatives from the Golden Triangle Development Link, who presented American Eurocopter with its inaugural regional Industry of the Year award.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.