Sep 30 2006

Congress approves spending on planes

Mobile Press Register and Huntsville Times

By Shelby Spires

Funding for a series of projects that could create thousands of aircraft and ship assembly jobs in Mobile and along the Mississippi coast received final approval by federal lawmakers on Friday as part of the fiscal 2007 defense spending bill.

The $447.6 billion appropriations bill was approved after negotiators from both chambers earlier this week reached a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the legislation. The bill was passed by the House late Tuesday 394-22, and approved by the Senate on Friday by a vote of 100-0.

The bill, which still must by signed by President Bush, includes $70 million that will allow the U.S. Air Force to move forward with a competition to replace its aging fleet of KC-135 refueling tankers. The project could bring a 1,000-worker aircraft assembly plant to the Brookley Field Industrial Complex if a team led by Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS North America Inc. can win at least a share of the work over rival Boeing Co.

The money should keep the Air Force on schedule to award a tanker contract next year, according to Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa.

"It is vital that we ensure that our service members have the best military equipment available, and I continue to believe that if the Northrop Grumman/EADS team is able to participate in a fair and open competition, their proposal would win," Shelby said Friday.

The bill also restored $72 million in funding for the Army to begin acquiring the Joint Cargo Aircraft, a light cargo plane that it will share with the Air Force. Raytheon and EADS CASA North America Inc. are one of two teams vying for the cargo plane contract, which could bring a 150-worker aircraft assembly plant to Mobile Regional Airport.

Members of the conference committee had sought to steer funding for the program to the Air Force's budget, but Shelby, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he fought to keep the program under the Army's control.

The Army "has an immediate need and clearly defined requirements for the cargo plane, which the Air Force will procure in subsequent years," Shelby said. "As far as Mobile is concerned, we'd much rather have it in the Army's budget because they're motivated and ready to go."

The Army is on schedule to award a contract for the Joint Cargo Aircraft in early 2007, and the money will enable the service to acquire two planes next year.

According to Shelby's office, other Mobile-area projects receiving funding included:

Littoral Combat Ship -- $520.67 million: The money will be used to procure two LCS prototypes, one of which is being produced at Austal USA's shipyard, which employs about 600 people in Mobile. Austal said the money could mean it would be building two additional combat ships next year. "We're very pleased it worked out this way," said Bill Pfister, vice president of government programs for Austal USA.

DDG-1000 destroyer -- $2.568 billion: The money will be used to start procurement of two new DDG 1000 Destroyers, which are built by Northrop Grumman Corp. at its Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula. The shipyard employs about 2,000 workers who commute from southwest Alabama.

Northrop's DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer, formerly known as the DD(X) is 600 feet long and costs about $3.3 billion. It is "the most sophisticated warship in the world," said company spokesman Brian Cullin.

LHA(R) - Amphibious Assault Ship -- $1.135 billion: The money will be used to procure one amphibious assault ship, built by Northrop Grumman in Pascagoula.

"I'm very pleased to see the funding approved for so many programs that are important to Mississippi shipbuilders" said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss.