By Andrew Caffrey
A General Dynamics military plant in Taunton will probably avoid having to lay off workers after the Pentagon this week backed off a plan to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from a project being developed there.
The Defense Department's proposal to chop $334.6 million from the project -- a mobile communications system for military units in the field -- was met with stiff opposition in Congress, particularly from Senator Scott Brown, a Republican. And after meeting with Brown earlier this week, Pentagon officials revised the size of the cut down to $54.6 million, his office said Friday.
"I'm pleased that the Army's plans to change the program have been shelved, and instead have been replaced by smarter budget savings," Brown said in a statement. "This reversal reinforces that the WIN-T program remains a top Army priority and is a major relief for hundreds of families that have been on edge."
Brown is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, one of the congressional panels that has to sign off on the Pentagon's request to redirect some $8 billion from existing contracts to cover cost overruns elsewhere in its budget, including the cut to the Taunton project.
General Dynamics officials were elated at the news, and said the company would be able to manage a $54 million reduction to WIN-T without layoffs. WIN-T stands for Warfighter Information Network Tactical, a system that would allow ground troops to exchange data via satellite while on the move in vehicles.
"The employees in Taunton, their spirits are uplifted by the progress we've made in generating interest in supporting this high priority program," said Chris Marzilli, chief executive of the General Dynamics unit that oversees the program. "In these tough economic times, the preservation of hundreds of jobs in a distressed district such as Taunton is of paramount importance."
A Pentagon spokeswoman did not respond for comment.
The current annual appropriation for the project is $838 million. The Pentagon had originally proposed a one-time reduction in this year's funding. But General Dynamics officials had said the larger cut could inflict long-term damage to the Taunton plant, which has about 1,000 workers, many of whom work on the mobile communications contract.
For one, company officials feared the company would permanently lose any skilled employees that would be laid off during the interim reduction. Secondly, they worried that in a climate of belt-tightening throughout government, the one-time reduction would make the communications project vulnerable to downsizing, especially as the Pentagon is preparing to streamline itself as operations in the Middle East wind down, and Congress has mandated massive spending cuts that are supposed to hit military budgets hard.
General Dynamics has been developing the WIN-T system at its Taunton plant for years. An early version is currently deployed, but it can be used only in stationary locations; the next version would allow troops to communicate while on the move in remote areas.
The military tested the latest version over the spring, and General Dynamics officials say it performed well, although an official go-ahead to complete deployment of the system to eight brigades is not expected until September.