Montana Manufacturers Wary of Pentagon’s Move to Drop F-22

By Beacon Staff

The recent announcement by the Obama administration of its intention to end production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet could affect manufacturing businesses and their employees across the state, including in Kalispell, and has Montana’s federal delegation mobilizing to keep the warplanes in production.

In his proposed budget, announced April 6, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates increased overall defense spending by 4 percent and made clear his wish to end production of the F-22, among other programs. Gates wants to produce only four more F-22 jets, as opposed to the 60 more called for by the Air Force. At a cost of $140 million each, the F-22 is designed to be America’s new top fighter jet, replacing the F-15 and establishing supremacy in a new era of aerial combat. Gates, instead, wishes to increase production of the F-35, a lighter, cheaper plane he has described as more versatile than the F-22, and with newer technology.

But ending production of the F-22 could impact the jobs of as many as 100,000 workers at manufacturing firms across the country. Built primarily by Lockheed-Martin, the deepest job cuts would likely hit Texas and Georgia, but parts for the F-22 are produced in 44 states – including Montana.

South of Kalispell, Sonju Industrial Inc. manufactures high-precision components for aerospace, medical and semiconductor industries, as well as for military contractors like Boeing and Raytheon. Jon Sonju, who handles business development for the firm and serves as a state Republican representative, said his family business has been machining titanium wing and landing gear components for the F-22 since 2000, when SI became a subcontractor for Boeing, which makes about a third of the jet. Crafting F-22 parts accounts for about 30-40 percent of Sonju’s work for Boeing, he added.

With relatively few manufacturing firms in Montana, especially those making parts as specialized and as heavily vetted by the Pentagon as SI’s, Sonju estimates losing the F-22 program amounts to a loss of revenue equivalent to anywhere from 10 to 15 jobs.

“That’s not good news for Sonju Industrial when they cut that program,” Sonju said. “Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of us here, and any time Montana loses work on a central program, we’re going to be hurting.”

Sonju does not anticipate any layoffs at his family’s firm. With some new contracts recently signed to manufacture for other corporations, he is confident he can backfill the work that might be lost. And though the company remains diversified, he has already been meeting with Boeing executives to discuss other aircraft for which Sonju can produce parts, like the F-35 or the Poseidon, an aircraft in development for the U.S. Navy.

“In this economic climate, you have to expect that a portion of your business is going to be discontinued,” Sonju added. “It just makes my job, where I do most of the business development, a little harder.”

But he also noted that even if making parts for the F-22 were replaced by some other plane, re-training the machinists for new parts can be highly expensive as well.

Other Montana businesses that could be impacted by the F-22 discontinuation include Summit Aeronautics Group in Helena and Cable Technology in Great Falls, which sometimes makes wire harness assemblies for the jet. Douglas Recker of Summit Aeronautics declined to comment for this story, while Ed Buttrey of Cable Technology did not return a call for comment.

The debate over the F-22, soon to play out in Congress, is one common to the defense industry. The argument against the F-22 has been that, as the Air Force’s most expensive fighter designed for imagined future conflicts, the military must focus its resources on being better equipped to combat the guerrillas and insurgents it confronts in its current wars.

But it’s not unusual for Congress to reinstate programs set on the chopping block by the Defense Secretary, nor is it a coincidence that programs like the F-22 employ workers across more than 40 states.

In January, Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester joined 42 of their Senate colleagues in signing a letter to Obama, before he took office, urging him to continue the F-22 program. In addition to the military benefits of the F-22, the senators also noted the economic repercussions of discontinuing production.

“The F-22 program annually provides over $12 billion of economic activity to the national economy,” the letter read. “If this certification is not provided, layoffs will begin as this critical supplier base shuts down, and it will quickly become expensive or perhaps impossible to reconstitute.”

Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg also sent a letter to Obama urging continuation of the F-22.

“The F-22 is an important part of the bigger national security picture, and its continued production is good for Montana,” Rehberg said, noting the 33 Montanans directly and 70 indirectly involved in making the jet.

Sonju lauded the work of Montana’s federal delegation in advocating for continuing the F-22. It remains to be seen what Congress will decide, but for now, Sonju is working to find more clients, so if the F-22 is cut, the effect on his business will be minimal.

“I don’t care if I have to sit outside by somebody’s car,” Sonju said. “I’m not going to lay off anybody; I’m going to find the work.”

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