Roy Sweatman: Failure is not an option on sequestration


Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 10:28 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 10:28 a.m.

There’s a famous scene in the movie Apollo 13, as legendary Flight Director Gene Kranz is pushing his team to find a way to save the mission. “We're gonna have to figure it out,” he says. “I want people in our simulators working re-entry scenarios. I want you guys to find every engineer who designed every switch, every circuit, every transistor and every light bulb that’s up there. Then I want you to talk to the guy in the assembly line who actually built the thing.”

It’s a central moment, when the audience realizes it’s not just astronauts and mission controllers who make our space program great. That those heroes stand at the top of a vast network of engineers, machinists, and mechanics, each of whom is mission critical.

The entire aerospace and defense industry is this way. A handful of large “prime” contractors might do final assembly on complicated equipment like fighter jets and submarines, but the most specialized skills and technical expertise are found in a deep, rich supply chain, made up of small and midsized companies in towns and cities stretching across all fifty states. Companies like mine, Southern Manufacturing Technologies in Tampa, where 110 Americans make customized high-performance parts for zero-risk-tolerance uses, from quick-release mechanisms for military parachutes to components for the valves that triggered the rockets on the vehicle lowering Curiosity to the surface of Mars.

Seventy cents out of each military purchasing dollar goes to supply chain firms like SMT, which are home to over two thirds of defense manufacturing jobs.

Unfortunately, our representatives in Congress don’t seem to fully appreciate these facts. If they did, I don’t see how they would have voted for the mindless “sequestration” cuts set to eviscerate military, space, and other federal budgets just four months from now.

These cuts will wreak havoc on the aerospace defense chain of supply as they flow down from the prime contractors to the small businesses that do so much of the work. Economists say over 1 million defense-connected jobs could be lost in 2013; that means a proportional hit of 600,000 jobs at small and midsized manufacturing shops. Congress might have aimed for a few wealthy mega firms, but it’s machine shops, tool and die presses, and family owned businesses in every district in every state that will take the ultimate hit.

The cost in jobs is painful enough, but the loss of technical excellence and capabilities is an even greater concern. My company, for example, has the only water jet deburring system in the United States, basically a computer controlled machine using a tiny stream of high-pressure water to remove metal imperfections in high-grade mechanical parts. My peers have their own unique specialties and skills, often built up through years of investment and on-the-job experience, and together we make up a bastion of industrial excellence that gives our troops an unbeatable high-tech advantage on any field of battle. But if these abrupt reckless sequestration cuts cause us to lose people or entire companies that are home to unique capabilities and skills – if we destroy the industrial “muscle memory” that is the backbone of American military superiority – we could end up paying the price for generations. It’s already starting to happen with the devastating cuts to Florida’s space professionals; piling on sequestration cuts could accelerate that dangerous trend to a breakneck pace.

Sequestration would decimate our military, like “shooting ourselves in the head” according to Secretary Panetta. And it would strangle our recovering economy; economists say it would add over a percentage point to national unemployment and destroy two-thirds of projected growth next year. It’s a lose-lose policy that simply makes no sense. Congress needs to go back and start over again – address our budget problems through serious policy and long term solutions, not accounting gimmicks and legislative trickery. We need to deal with our long term problems, but not through meat axe sequestration that only makes things worse.

As anyone who watched Apollo 13 would say - “Failure is not option.”

Roy Sweatman

President (Owner)

Southern Manufacturing Technologies, Inc.

Tampa

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