WASHINGTON — With cuts in the defense budget anticipated in the near future, national and local officials from California are pushing to secure continued production of the C-17 military cargo plane in Long Beach, citing the aircraft as vital to the local economy and national security.
The Department of Defense has not committed funding for the program beyond the current 180-plane contract with Boeing Co., which expires in April 2008. Supporters of the program urged the Pentagon on Tuesday to agree to at least 42 more C-17s.
"We are in a war, and the president has said to stay the course," Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) said. "With that kind of announcement, the president realizes that he needs a military force and an aircraft cargo [plane] with powerful might. The C-17, like no other aircraft, can go into the combat zone and go right to the troops."
She was among a group, which included Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill and council members Frank Colonna and Tonia Reyes Uranga, that met Tuesday with Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne to discuss the future of the program.
Millender-McDonald reported being "cautiously optimistic" after the meeting, and said that Wynne understood the delegation's concerns.
"Secretary Wynne acknowledged the contribution of the local workforce in producing the aircraft," she said. "Now we feel it's time for us to get a little bit of that contribution back by a continued production of the aircraft."
Through a spokesman, Wynne said he welcomed the input from the community, but noted: "We're awaiting the results of several studies as well as the completion of the budget process before any decision on C-17 purchases beyond the current 180 airplanes is made."
The C-17 has been used in Iraq to transport troops and equipment and has helped provide aid to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast region. The plane is about 175 feet long and can reach speeds of 500 mph.
The plane's manufacturer, Boeing, is the largest employer in Long Beach, where about 7,000 people work on the aircraft. According to O'Neill, production of the C-17 is an $8.4-billion industry; about 15 planes come out of the company's Long Beach plant each year.
"If C-17 production stops, we are talking about losing the largest aircraft production plant in the United States," she said. "Valuable talent will be lost. We feel that it would be a disaster to lose part of our national defense and national economy."
Early this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter to President Bush expressing his displeasure with the Defense Department and his concern for the California economy.
"California has suffered disproportionately during the defense drawdown of the last decade," he wrote. "I am disappointed that, despite strong congressional support, the Department of Defense reportedly has not committed future funding to continue the successful C-17 multiyear procurement program beyond the current contract."
The armed services committees in the Senate and the House have authorized a multiyear C-17 procurement in their fiscal 2006 defense authorization bills, but Millender-McDonald said that funding had yet to be appropriated.