Hi-Shear Technology over the last 18 months has been a shining success in the Pentagon's Technology Reinvestment Project, which pays defense contractors to develop products with commercial potential.
President Clinton praised Hi-Shear in a White House ceremony. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) took her election campaign to the company's Torrance headquarters. A NASA newsletter profiled Hi-Shear's wreckage-cutting LifeShear, a more easily portable version of the Jaws of Life tool used to free occupants of cars smashed in accidents.
Now that Republicans in Congress want to kill the defense reinvestment program, the Pentagon could use a little friendly political support from participants that have won contracts under it.
But even Hi-Shear is hurling brickbats at the Pentagon's technology program since it pulled the plug on $250,000 the firm was to get for development of a second rescue tool dubbed the "spreader," a metal-bending companion to the LifeShear cutter.
"Here we have been a model project, and they just came along and canceled our program," said Walt Smith, vice president and general manager of the publicly traded company.
The reinvestment program, heralded a year ago as a cornerstone for a post-Cold War defense industry, has recently been derided by Republicans as a "slush fund" supporting efforts of dubious military value.
Led by Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the GOP critics say the program is draining resources needed for military readiness.
The House voted to cancel the program's entire $502-million appropriation last month, but the Senate kept the cuts to $200 million in the bill it passed March 16. A conference committee will reconcile the two versions. Congress also trimmed Pentagon spending in other non-military areas such as environmental restoration and medical research.
"This will hurt national security," Undersecretary of Defense Paul Kaminski said last month after the House voted to kill the reinvestment effort.
Senior defense officials say that Republicans do not understand how important it is to the nation's long-term military needs. The Pentagon no longer has the money to support every new technology, they say, and must rely more and more on the commercial economy, particularly when it comes to advanced electronics.
The Defense Department has awarded 251 contracts with a combined value of $820 million to develop so-called dual use technologies, which have both military and civilian applications.
Depending on the conference committee's decision, the cuts could jeopardize a host of projects in Southern California.
A Redondo Beach-based precision laser project and a Torrance-based venture making satellite-guided earthmoving equipment already have received their federal money, but it is uncertain whether government funds will be available for later phases of development.
Without public money the firms would have to find financing on their own, and many companies may not be able to continue their projects.
"The larger companies, if they see any worth in it, should continue their programs," said Rohit Shukla, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance, a nonprofit group to boost technology companies. "But I'm not sure that is the case. Too many of them are too far away from the commercial marketplace."
At TRW Inc., development of a precision laser tool that will reduce costs in building ships and planes has received funds for this year and next. After that, company officials are not sure if the Pentagon will support extensive testing of the device.
"It remains to be seen how that plays out," said Len Marabella, a TRW engineer in Redondo Beach who is leading a team from 20 corporations developing the cutting tool.
He credited the Pentagon program with bringing the defense and electronics firms together. The payoff will be a laser tool useful in both the commercial and military sectors. This dual-use approach will make the laser product cheaper, Marabella said, than had it been made solely for the Pentagon.
"This will make lasers much more of a commodity," he said. "It will keep this technology robust and available, when the government needs it."
The argument that the TRP has been crucial to preserving technology has been difficult for supporters to convey in the budget-cutting frenzy going on in Washington.
"This is not just some kind of payoff to aerospace workers to get them to change jobs," Harman said. "This helps the Defense Department because it gives them access to less expensive technology."
One problem, supporters admit, is that some people expected to see a big payoff in the form of jobs. That has not been the case. At TRW, for example, just 12 employees are working full time on the precision laser.
"Now the emphasis is: 'If the (reinvestment program) is part of the defense bill, it better be defense-relevant'," said Richard Williams, project director of a Cal State Long Beach-based effort to create degree programs in manufacturing.