Key players angle for slices of Pentagon pie

President Bush took office pledging to reshape conventional forces into a higher-technology, faster-moving military. Then, when the United States attacked Afghanistan and beefed up homeland security after Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon faced heightened demands on current capabilities, from Special Forces commandos to jet transports to military police.

And now the prospect of a second war with Iraq could add another set of demands on the military-for heavy-armor brigades and air wings. Amid all this, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pledged to send the 2004 defense budget in a bold new direction, and his aides are scrutinizing prized programs, including Navy aircraft carriers, the Marines' V-22 Osprey aircraft, and the Air Force's F/A-22 fighter-not to mention pretty much every priority item in the beleaguered Army budget. That gives the six groups below plenty to worry and fight about as they compete for defense dollars.

Association of the United States Army

The Army has a "problem" the other armed services don't have: Its weapons are cheaper. All but its largest contracts are dwarfed by the dollars spent on the Pentagon's bigger-ticket items, such as Navy aircraft carriers and Air Force stealth fighters. That financial fact means that most Army contractors lack the critical mass to influence Capitol Hill. So while the sea and air services can count on major corporations in their corner, the Army relies on its professional association to make its case to Congress.

Boasting a staff of 85 people and an annual budget of $15 million, the Association of the United States Army does have corporate sponsors: some 319 "sustaining members," seven of which are different divisions of General Dynamics, the only top-tier defense contractor at all dependent on the Army. (The company makes the Stryker lightweight armored vehicle, which is crucial to the Army's future as a lighter, faster-deploying service.) But AUSA's real strength is its individual membership, which tops 100,000. Nearly half of these members are active-duty officers and soldiers. Similarly, the association's chosen ammunition in the Washington budget fight is not dollars, but ideas. Legally banned from lobbying, AUSA wields not one but two in-house think tanks, which can paper Congress with studies and reports.

So even if the Army lacks the corporate influence of the Navy and Air Force, or the gung-ho self-assertiveness that has served the Marines so well on Capitol Hill, the association at least gives the service a voice. AUSA's call to arms this coming year will be to protect the Army's top programs-the Stryker, the Comanche scout helicopter-and above all, the Army's manpower levels-from skeptical Rumsfeld aides.

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has 124,000 employees and $24 billion in annual revenue-58 percent of it from defense work-and handles everything from C-130J tactical cargo planes to next-generation global positioning satellites. Most important, Lockheed is the prime contractor for two of the Pentagon's signature programs: the F/A-22 Raptor fighter aircraft and the Joint Strike Fighter. Both planes are vital to the company's future; Lockheed's 28 in-house lobbyists, plus the 27 lobbying firms it has on retainer, will be working lawmakers to make sure that Congress buys as many of both airplanes as possible.

The F/A-22, however, is at risk. It was envisioned 15 years ago as the world's premier air-to-air fighter. But outside the Air Force, the plane is viewed today as an extravagance; none of America's enemies possesses formidable air power, and the Air Force desperately needs to replace air tankers, cargo planes, and other more-mundane-but-necessary machines. Because of all this, planners have cut the number of Raptors from the 750 initially envisioned to a maximum of 341. Thanks to spirited lobbying, the F/A-22 has escaped being cut to a mere 180, but the program is not out of the woods yet: New questions arose after the November revelations of a $690 million cost overrun.

The Joint Strike Fighter, meanwhile, is a less elite, more versatile fighter-bomber designed not only for the Air Force but also for the Navy, Marine Corps, and European militaries. It has the distinction of being the biggest defense contract ever, at $225 billion, mainly because of the size of the order-an expected 3,000-rather than because of the cost per plane, which is well below the F/A-22's.

Boeing

Although defense work represents a crucial part of Boeing's future-$23 billion of its $58 billion in annual revenue is defense- or space-related-the world's No. 1 manufacturer of commercial airliners is a relative latecomer to big-ticket defense contracting.

Boeing and its 167,000 employees currently supply the Navy with the Super Hornet fighter jet-an interim model that will satisfy the Navy's needs until the more advanced Joint Strike Fighter is ready to fly. Boeing also produces the C-17 cargo plane, the EA-18 electronic jamming plane, and an airborne tanker that is based on the design of the company's civilian jets. Each of these projects is noted for reliability, not sex appeal. Selling cargo planes such as the C-17 "is like selling reality TV shows to Fox," as one defense analyst put it, and those purchases could continue for decades.

At the same time, Boeing is also pushing the frontiers of technology. It is heavily involved with ballistic-missile defense; it is developing the Delta IV launching rocket; and it is designing Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles for the Air Force and Navy.

The company's 34 in-house lobbyists, and 29 lobbying firms on retainer, should be up to the job of keeping the government checks coming. Like other contractors, Boeing has played the "political engineering" game skillfully. Members of Congress from California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Washington state are strongly in Boeing's corner, because their districts contain major Boeing facilities.

Northrop Grumman

A decade ago, Northrop Grumman was struggling. Its premier program, the B-2 stealth bomber, had become a byword for cost overruns, and the whole defense industry was convulsed with mergers. "We were quite sure, at the end of the Cold War in 1989, that Northrop Grumman, as just a small manufacturer of airplanes, was not going to be able to survive," said Bob Haffa, director of the company's Analysis Center. But by 2001, Northrop had reinvented itself.

With more than 95,000 employees and $13 billion in annual sales, today's Northrop Grumman has staked its fate not on making planes, but on engineering the electronics that give them their cutting edge. The company integrates the complex electronic systems inside several airframes, including the Navy's nimble F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber, the Air Force's lumbering E-8C Joint Stars flying command post, and the prototype Joint Strike Fighter. And in the program Northrop vaunts most, it makes the Global Hawk drone, a robotic spy plane with about a 14,000-mile range.

Despite this high-tech thrust, Northrop has also bought its way into a dominant position in one of the most labor-intensive, Industrial Age businesses around: Navy shipbuilding. An April 2001 acquisition brought the company two shipyards, Mississippi's Ingalls and Louisiana's Avondale. And that November, Northrop stunned observers with its successful bid to purchase Virginia's Newport News Shipbuilding-the nation's only builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, whose future seems assured now that the Navy's next-generation "CVNX" carrier program scraped through a recent Pentagon review.

Heritage Foundation

As a nonprofit think tank and educational organization, the conservative Heritage Foundation is prohibited from lobbying. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been influential in shaping Pentagon spending priorities and, in particular, pushing the cause of national missile defense.

That Heritage was key to getting missile defense back on the national agenda is indisputable. Its March 1999 report, "Defending America: A Plan to Meet the Urgent Missile Threat," was exquisitely timed: It came soon after North Korea's surprise firing of a three-stage rocket over the heads of the Japanese, and after India's and Pakistan's dueling detonations of nuclear warheads. The Heritage report's key findings were that the United States needed to accelerate its fielding of a missile defense system; abrogate the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia; and focus on sea-based defenses as the most viable first stage in a layered missile defense. In varying degrees, those findings are now official U.S. government policy.

Heritage has a staff of 185, an annual budget of about $30 million, and continual inflows of money from donors large and small. It will use those resources to hold meetings with lawmakers, give briefings to reporters, and organize conferences for interested Washington players. At an April 2001 conference in Colorado, for example, Heritage brought in more than 20 editorial writers and reporters who covered missile defense to talk with top missile experts. Shortly thereafter, The Washington Post editorial page dropped its long opposition to missile defense.

Marine Corps

The fate of the $40 billion V-22 Osprey aircraft program is hanging by a sinuous string of support from an unusual interest group: the Marine Corps. Designed to take off and land like a helicopter, yet to cruise with the speed and range of an airplane, the Osprey has been buffeted by controversy throughout its decade-plus development. Costing an estimated $89.7 million per copy, the Osprey is considered by some critics as too expensive for a medium-lift aircraft, and the plane was grounded in December 2000 after two crashes killed 23 Marines. The aircraft is currently undergoing a reworked testing program. Pentagon acquisition chief Pete Aldridge has expressed deep skepticism over the safety and reliability of the Osprey's unique tilt-rotor technology.

Yet throughout its travails, the Osprey has survived, largely on the strength of the Marine Corps' rock-solid commitment to the program. That dedication reveals the potency of one of Washington's least understood and most underrated lobbying forces. Unlike the other armed services, which have multiple subcommunities and numerous competing programs, the Marine Corps has focused like a laser on the Osprey as its No. 1 weapons program.

"While the other services are larger and more divided in terms of their goals, the Marine Corps makes an attribute of its small size by combining it with great passion and focus," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a defense consulting group. "The Marine Corps is also expert at tasking its veteran alumni almost as a grassroots political organization that is very effective in lobbying for the Corps' interests. In my mind, the Marine Corps is almost the institutional equivalent of Israel: It's small, impassioned, and it never takes its survival for granted."

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