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March 29. 2012 6:38PM

Ayotte warns: Defense cuts potentially "devastating" for Shipyard, contractors

MANCHESTER _ The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and New Hampshire defense contractors could suffer “devastating” consequences if Congress and President Barack Obama fail to act before the end of the year to reverse mandatory across-the-board cuts in defense spending, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., warned on Thursday.

Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on a conference call with New Hampshire reporters, “If we go through this, we’re facing at least two more BRAC rounds,” referring to the Base Realignment and Closure program that has threatened the continued operation of the shipyard in the past.

“It guarantees BRAC,” she said. “This is like BRAC on steroids.”

As part of the debt-ceiling deal reached on Capitol Hill last August, a congressional “supercommittee” was charged with finding an additional $1.2 trillion in savings. But its effort failed due to partisan gridlock, with no votes or recommendations even sent to Congress.

As a result of that failure, under the law that created the supercommittee, automatic, across-the-board, so-called “sequestration” cuts are required in defense and non-defense spending unless Congress acts to stop it or alter how they go into effect.

For overall defense, Ayotte said, it amounts to between $500 billion and $600 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, in addition to $487 billion in cuts that have already been agreed on.

For the Navy, Ayotte said, it would amount to $15 billion a year, which equates to its entire shipbuilding budget.

Ayotte joined fellow armed services committee members, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at a news conference on Thursday, to urge all sides not to let the matter simmer until a lame duck session of Congress in December.

“Please, can we sit down with the president,” said McCain, the top Republican on the committee, “for the sake of the nation’s defense.”

Ayotte later told New Hampshire reporters that Navy officials say if the cuts take place, the current fleet of 285 ships must be reduced to 235 over the next 10 years, which, she said, would be the smallest U.S. Navy since 1915. She said the Navy believes 313 ships are needed to adequately fulfill defense needs.

“Each year our fleet would get smaller and smaller at a time when Naval presence is incredibly important when we see what China is investing in it and with what we see happening around the world,” Ayotte said, calling the plan “a hatchet-job” and “a meat ax approach across all accounts.”

The reduction would include submarines, and Ayotte noted that the shipyard is responsible for maintenance of attack submarines.

Ayotte said it is unlikely that the Navy would entirely gut its shipbuilding budget to meet $15 billion in cuts, but she said it is an option and illustrates the magnitude of the impending cuts.

She said it would not necessarily affect the shipyard in the first year of cuts because the Navy is “not yet in a position to break it down by each shipyard in the country, yet. They haven’t come up with their plan, yet, of how they’re going to deal with it because it’s crazy to do in terms of our national security.”

But in the long-term, she said, “There’s grave implications for the shipyard if our fleet goes from 283 to 235. If it takes the entire shipbuilding budget to account for sequestration for a year, this is devastating,” she said.

Another option she said is to gut the Navy’s aviation budget. She said $15 billion also adds up to the Navy’s maintenance budget for about two years.

While eight months remain before the cuts would take effect, Ayotte said, “In Washington, there is a tendency to hide from tough problems that are before us. We can’t wait until December to act on this. We can’t have this hanging over our employers in New Hampshire.”

She said that the Air Force also faces cuts, noting that BAE Systems works on the Joint Strike Fighter. And, Ayotte said, the cuts could result in the ordering of fewer KC-46A tankers, which could hurt the Pease Air National Guard Base.

Overall, she said, about 3,300 defense jobs in New Hampshire could be at stake.

“The more I learn about sequestration,the more alarmed I become. I do not believe that this can be left for the end of the year with everything else Congress has to decide,” she said. “People are saying it’s crazy and nobody would do it, but now that the supercommittee hasn’t done its job, we’ve got to address this now.

“Here’s my problem,” Ayotte said. “It’s the law right now and Congress has to take an affirmative act to stop it, and I have not heard enough political will around here of people willing to step up and endorse legislation or even commit to sitting around a table to come up with a result.”

Ayotte has cosponsored an alternative bill that would require that for every three federal jobs that become vacant, only two would be filled. That reduction, she said, would be more “mild” than sequestration. She said her plan also allows for national security waivers, which could be applied to the shipyard.


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