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McCain says Obama defense cuts could affect Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, BAE Systems

Senior Political Reporter

October 23. 2012 12:46PM

MANCHESTER -- Democrats and organized labor leaders Tuesday challenged Republican Sen. John McCain's contention that automatic cuts of billions of dollars, including in defense spending, will have a 'draconian effect on shipbuilding,' which could affect the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and BAE Systems.

National and local leaders of the AFL-CIO's Metal Trades Council said the shipyard is 'fully work-loaded for the next 10 years' and that 'nobody in their right mind' believes the cuts will go into effect.

A former Obama administration Pentagon spokesman said, 'The allegation that the Obama administration has made the Navy smaller and weaker are just plain wrong.'

McCain, the two-time New Hampshire presidential primary winner and 2008 GOP presidential nominee, is ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He told reporters on a post-debate conference call Tuesday morning that President Barack Obama's 'cavalier' comment in the Monday night debate that the cuts, known as sequestration, 'won't happen' showed 'a hubris, an arrogance there, that I found stunning' since repeal of the impending cuts require congressional action.

McCain said the debate showed Mitt Romney 'is fully qualified to serve as commander-in-chief.'

McCain said, 'Facts are stubborn things and the fact is that we will have the smallest Navy since 1914 if sequestration takes place. There is a steady reduction in shipbuilding in shipyards all over America.'

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard provides maintenance and overhaul work on nuclear-powered submarines.

'We have pivoted to the Asia Pacific and we know that requires more ships and more naval presence,' McCain said. 'To justify a steady reduction in shipbuilding shows a misunderstanding of the size of the challenge we face in the Asia-Pacific region. And sequestration, which he cavalierly said 'won't happen,' will have a draconian effect on shipbuilding in Portsmouth and the other industries such as BAE in New Hampshire as well.'

But Ron Ault, president of the Metal Trades Department of the national AFL-CIO, said the shipyard is 'loaded.'

'We don't have enough workers to add any more work to the workload,' he said. 'We're trying to find local workers to assist us in the USS Miami repairs.' The submarine was heavily damaged by fire earlier this year.

He called sequestration a 'boogie man in the closet' and said, 'Nobody in their right mind believes it is ever going to happen. I don't believe anyone in Congress or the White House is that irresponsible that they would impose automatic cuts that are devastating not only to critical programs but also defense.

'The President said last night that it ain't going to happen,' Ault said, 'and we all believe that it ain't going to happen.'

Paul O'Connor, president of the local Metal Trades Council at the shipyard, said there are about 6,000 workers at the shipyard, with about 4,000 union employees.

'If sequestration takes effect -- and none of us think it will at this point -- the cuts would be way too dramatic and every activity would be taken to be able effectively, safely and prudently plan for it,' O'Connor said. ' Our orders from Navy are to proceed as if this will not happen.

'President Obama understands the value of a strong Navy,' O'Connor said. 'It's not just about numbers of ships. It's about the quality, the firepower, the technological superiority.'

He called McCain's comments 'political 'blunderbuss' rather than reality.'

Douglas Wilson, former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said, 'The Navy actually shrank between 2001 and 2008. In 2001 it was about 316 ships and in 2008 it was 278 and during the same period the Navy was cut by almost 50,000 sailors.' He said Obama plans to have it grow to about 300 ships by 2019.

McCain and Romney's comments 'reflect a profound misunderstanding of today's military to think that deployment of assets are done in a stove pipe manner.'

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose state is home to the U.S. Naval Academy and who campaigned in New Hampshire Tuesday for Democratic candidate for governor Maggie Hassan, defended Obama's remarks.

O'Malley recalled that in the 1980s former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who ran for President in 1984 and 1988, talked about 'having a force that's equipped for the conflicts of these times and the future rather than a force that's equipped for the last war. And I thought the President crystallized that very well when he pointed out that we have fewer horses and fewer bayonets.'

But McCain blasted Obama's tone in the debate, particularly the President's 'horses' and 'bayonets' comment.

'I don't know why the President of the United States feels it necessary to denigrate and insult his opponent,' he said. 'This is a man who has never known anything about national defense or national security or served in the military, and to make a smart remark about horses and bayonets and planes that fly off aircraft carriers to me is not only unpresidential but shows a lack of maturity and a lack of judgment.'

McCain said Romney made it clear he 'understands the war weariness of the American people' and will not send the United States into war, but he also showed 'he understands that we are weaker than we were four years ago, and of course in the Middle East, that is absolutely true.'

But O'Malley lauded Obama's 'ruthless and relentless' pursuit of al-Qaida and use of drone strikes.

'The President demonstrated not only an understanding of our armed forces but also an understanding that this is a changing world in which we strive for greater security,' O'Malley said. 'There always needs to be changes as the threat changes.'

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