Reaching out to military leadership, defense contractors

By Sheila McNeill, President
The Camden Partnership
Op-Ed printed in the April 13, 2017 Tribune & Georgian

What does a trade show in Prince George’s County, Md., have to do with the economic prosperity of Camden County? A great deal.

The Navy League of the United States just hosted its 63rd annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition at National Harbor, outside Washington, D.C. More than 250 defense contractors exhibited their current and future projects to senior U.S. defense personnel and other global military personnel leadership.

The chief of naval operations and the commandant of the Coast Guard both addressed those attending on current and anticipated needs of their respective commands.

As president of The Camden Partnership, I attended the exposition to ensure Camden's already significant economic benefit deriving from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay is protected, and to look for new opportunities with the base contractor executive leadership attending the exposition. This local impact is calculated to be above $1.4 billion, according to our 2017 Kings Bay Economic Impact Study.

Liaisons from the Navy and Coast Guard have briefed The Camden Partnership on critical service gaps that need to be met. This “gap” information is shared with military contractors operating in Camden County as well as some that have the possibility of expanding into Camden County to ensure that our local defense infrastructure is best positioned for growth. Seeking opportunities within the base contractor community is one of two prime objectives of the partnership.

The replacement of the Ohio-class submarines at Kings Bay and Bangor, Wash., is the No. 1 priority of the defense department and the Navy. It is also a key factor in Camden’s economic stability. We began supporting the funding for the replacement submarines, called the Columbia class, in early 2009.

The Camden Partnership helped launch and lead the national “America’s Strength” campaign that focused on ship-building including this new class of submarines. Without ship-building starting in 2021, the forced retirement of current submarines due toaging may leave Kings Bay with a reduced number of subs. National defense implications aside, this action also would significantly reduce the economic impact the installation has to Camden County and surrounding communities.

The Camden Partnership will take current funding issues that are relevant to Camden’s defense industry to Washington this year. Such issues include the proposed 14-percent cut to the Coast Guard budget, significant to Camden County given the two Coast Guard missions hosted within our county.

In a time when homeland security is on the mind of every American, it is difficult to understand how a 14-percent reduction is even being considered for the Coast Guard. Many were confident when President Donald Trump talked about an increase for our military that the Coast Guard would be finally receiving the funding they need. No other service has 50-year-old ships!

However, it is no surprise that the defense missions that Camden County hosts require constant advocacy, even in the friendliest of political climates. With a lot of national attention being placed on border security, we need to ensure the message of securing our coastal borders is a part of the conversation. The security of that 18,000 miles is a primary focus of our Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard’s Maritime Safety and Security Team 91108 is located in St. Marys. The last time we faced such a budget crisis, this unit was designated to be eliminated. The Coast Guard is an armed force at all times. That is why Kings Bay depends on the Coast Guard’s Maritime Force Protection Unit for security of our strategic missile submarines. Though their budget and operations are within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, they face the same readiness challenges that the Department of Defense does and must be included in the administration’s effort to “rebuild the Armed Forces.”

Adm. Paul Zukunft spoke the first day of the Sea-Air-Space Exposition to 1,500 attendees on the needs of the Coast Guard. He made it clear that they are well structured by falling within the Department of Homeland Security instead of DOD. However, the possibility of the branch not getting adequate attention as it relates to military readiness because of this structure is a notable concern; this would be a crucial misstep to our nation’s defense capabilities and border security.

When our legislators return to Washington on April 24-25 they will be seeing the full Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security (Coast Guard) budgets with limited time to make decisions.

No one wants a continuing resolution. I’ve tried to think of an analogy that speaks to how unproductive and wasteful it is. Imagine if we had to go by a budget that was outdated. They would be funded to build a certain ship — that is perhaps completed.

But they would not have funding to begin construction for a ship that has been approved and parts ordered. That holds especially true to the replacement for the Columbia Class, which has a very tight schedule to have new submarines built as quickly as they retire the current ones.

A continuing resolution ties you in to what you were doing last year with no regard for the current year. It would be a great accomplishment for our legislators if we had a 2018 budget.

We will meet with Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue and Congressman Buddy Carter in a few weeks. In past years, this has been very productive. It was successful in 1996 when we advocated for the guided-missile submarines that brought the USS Georgia and USS Florida to Kings Bay.

It was successful in 2009, when we were working to restore the Coast Guard’s $300 million and protecting our Maritime Safety and Security Team in St. Marys in the 2010 budget. This year is as crucial as it was in 1996 and 2009. Having an opportunity to talk with our legislators about not only the Coast Guard budget but the continued support on the Columbia Class of strategic missile submarines is important to us all.