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Defense Contracting In Washington Since 9/11

Patricia Murphy

It's no secret that war is big business. Since the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, more than $40 billion of contract work from the Department of Defense (DOD) has funneled through Washington state.

In 2009 the Washington Economic Development Commission says the state received more than $5.1 billion in pay and compensation. But the DOD's budget is on the cutting block and that could mean less money for Washington state. KUOW's Patricia Murphy reports.


The DOD has already been instructed to cut $350 million billion in defense spending over the next decade. On top of that, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the super committee, is charged with reducing the federal debt by at least $1.5 trillion.

[Ed.: Transcript has been edited and differs from the broadcast version. The cut is $350 billion. (09/09/2011)]

Some of that money could come from defense. Just how much of that money will be taken out of Washington state remains to be seen.

Barrett: "Well, to be frank, hardly anybody is able to anticipate anything in this industry these days so we'll have to wait for better information."

Brice Barrett is the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Defense Coalition. He says Washington state has a couple of things on its side. At the top of the list, Washington state Senator Patty Murray. She's co–chairing the bipartisan super committee. Then there's Boeing's $35 billion contract to build air–refueling tankers in Everett.

Barrett: "We've got a great program in the tanker that's being built right here in Washington state and I think that program is one of the most important strategic items on the air force's agenda."

Gary Therkildsen is a fiscal policy analyst who looks at defense spending. He says Washington state's chunk of DOD money has been lessening over time.

Therkildsen: "As the pie has grown larger within DOD spending, Washington state has been getting a little less each year."

The state sits pretty much in the middle of the pack in terms of overall DOD spending, down from 17th in the nation in 2002, to the mid 20s during the latter part of the decade.

But while Boeing's big planes may get a lot of the attention when it comes to defense contracting, there are hundreds of other companies contracting with the DOD in Washington.

The Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind started making mops for the Navy in the 1950s. Today Seattle Lighthouse workers make a number of products for the military including an entrenching tool, utensils and every canteen or water hydration system carried by US troops.

Fletcher: "This is a one quart–two quart and the replacement cap for the war fighter for the belt–worn hydration system, which is basically a canteen and a cup."

Paul Fletcher is product development coordinator at Lighthouse. The hydration systems are considered basic equipment for the military and Fletcher vividly remembers the production demands following the 9/11 attacks.

Fletcher: "It was easy to see that we were going into Iraq by the number of phone calls we had, you know, what can we expedite, how fast can we do those kinds of things, and that — so you can see the trends in our order patterns, or at least our RFQs, request for quotes."

Lighthouses' military contract work represents about $10 million a year. That's more than half of their annual revenue.

In many ways Lighthouse has an edge on contracting with the government. The organization is part of a federal initiative known as Ability One. The program was created to provide government work to people who are blind or disabled. But Fletcher says that doesn't mean they don't have to stay competitive or deal with production lulls. He's also concerned about the DOD cutbacks.

Fletcher: "It's probably likely that we're going to see some downturn in government spending with the budgetary crisis and so we're pushing right now both in finding new commodities to manufacture, but really pushing our aerospace because that's on the upswing."

They're now creating a piece of the nose cone for Boeing's 737.

Despite the potential cutbacks Brice Barrett says there are some bright spots here in Washington state.

He anticipates growth in cyber security, unmanned aerial vehicles and alternative energy.

Barrett: "There is a huge push in the department of defense for energy security, for energy independence for bases, for outposts, and I have seen a great deal of activity in our region in work toward that. So that's one to keep an eye on."

Of course what happens in this state is highly dependent on what happens in the other Washington.

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has until November 23 to identify at least a trillion dollars in cuts. If they fail, their inaction will trigger automatic spending cuts in defense and non–defense domestic programs.

I'm Patricia Murphy, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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