Arsenal of Democracy, 2.0

As the Pentagon shifts from planning for big land wars to combatting small insurgencies, it’s been busy eliminating weapons programs and facilities across the country. And because of its abundance of skilled workers and institutional knowledge of making the tools of war, 
metro Detroit stands to benefit
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Illustration by John Dunivant

The future success of the United States military is being waged at a circuit board factory in Wayne County’s fledgling Aerotropolis district, as well as at hundreds of other private facilities across metro Detroit. The challenge for the private sector is that the military’s objectives can change without notice, depending on when and where global conflicts arise.

A $4-billion industry, the design and production of military parts and systems in metro Detroit may ebb and flow, especially as the federal government emphasizes rapid deployment over massive Cold War-era armaments, but the orders never stop. Armed with an institutional knowledge of supplying tanks, armaments, weapons, and specialty components, as well as offering one of the world’s most sought-after skilled workforces, the region has maintained and enhanced its standing as a technical and mechanized stalwart in protecting and defending America and its allies around the world.

“You never know what’s going to happen — or where. That’s why preparation and rapid adaptability are key to servicing the needs of the military,” says Yash Sutariya, vice president of corporate strategy at Saturn Electronics Corp. in Romulus. “We wear a lot of different hats, whether a ship gets caught in a typhoon that delays an order for circuit boards or [due to] the ever-changing nature of prototyping, which is 30 percent of our business.”

Circuit boards are akin to the human brain. Because a cockpit display in an F-15 fighter jet is only as good as the circuit board that controls it, Sutariya and his 145-person staff have to be at the top of their game. “Everything is getting smaller and more efficient,” says Jon Rimanelli, vice president of business development at Saturn Electronics and principal of Nextronix Inc., a sister company to Saturn.

While the hundreds of circuit boards being produced inside Saturn’s 94,000-square-foot facility may appear the same, the uses are diverse — whether servicing applications like radar, unmanned air vehicles, weaponry, heads-up wearable displays, or night vision systems.

The same demand for exacting specifications can be found at hundreds of other companies across the region that service the military. But the field is becoming more crowded — and complicated.

That’s abundantly clear as Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, tall and thin, and wearing desert camouflage fatigues, offered a recent PowerPoint presentation at the Hyatt Regency Dearborn outlining how the U.S. military is undergoing a sea change in its approach to war procurement and preparation — and strategies for future conflicts. As the Army’s deputy chief of staff for programs, Speakes offered an assessment of the future of U.S. combat vehicles.

As he talked, some 500 executives from Michigan and across the country jotted down notes or typed on laptops. In almost all cases, the executives represented companies that service military contracts — or want them.

Citing “America’s retreat from abroad,” Speakes and others spoke of the need to make U.S. military forces more nimble and mobile to fight smaller wars and insurgencies, while at the same time keeping soldiers safe. That means better command and communications equipment, safer and more effective combat vehicles, more robots, more computers — more innovation.

But there’s a problem. As more and more Michigan firms find work in the auto industry drying up, they are increasingly looking to defense and, to a lesser extent, Homeland Security, to stay in business. At the same time, the Department of Defense is downsizing and consolidating its forces, killing expensive high-tech weapons systems that were originally designed for major land and air battles in the Cold War era. As much as possible, heavy equipment is being refurbished — a process Speakes called reset.

“We’re swamped with companies seeking military contracts,” says Beth Cryderman Moss, director of the Macomb Regional Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) in Warren. “It can be confusing if you’ve never done business with the defense industry. If you’re a spark plug company, we can tell you who (in the military) buys plugs, and what their needs are.”

As the war in Iraq winds down and the future U.S. military role in Afghanistan is hotly debated, the outlook for new contracts isn’t as crystal-clear as it once was.

Some 70 years ago, Detroit industrial leaders like Henry Ford, William Knudsen, K.T. Keller, and dozens of others were called on by the White House to gear up for what would become World War II. Starting in the summer of 1940 — some 18 months before Pearl Harbor — the so-called Automotive Committee for Air Defense was formed and began laying the groundwork for the Atlantic and Pacific conflicts.

Throughout World War II, the military spent upward of $20 billion in metro Detroit, the highest total invested among businesses in any large city. The resulting production included warplanes, military trucks, armored cars, and tanks — a Chrysler plant in Warren, completed in the spring of 1941, went on to produce 25,000 tanks throughout the war effort.

Today, the federal government spends as much as $800 billion (the true number is classified) on defense. About $4 billion comes to Michigan, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), a quasi-public development agency that helps link businesses large and small to military contracts.

That includes the U.S. Army’s main procurement agency — the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Command in Warren — which has been growing in size and importance as the Pentagon closes facilities around the country and consolidates that work in metro Detroit. The unit, known as TACOM, spent about $25 billion in fiscal year 2009 (ending in Sept)., says Cryderman Moss.

In the Macomb-St. Clair region alone, about $300 million in military contracts were awarded in fiscal 2008, Cryderman Moss notes. At the same time, her office saw a jump in companies seeking assistance on contracts, from 480 in September 2008 to 765 this past September. “Usually we see about the same numbers from year to year, but this has been a huge increase.” she says.

Where before the entire region joined in the war effort, the primary supplier area today is referred to as the “Defense Corridor” — a rectangle of small and large military contractors in Macomb County stretching north from the Detroit Arsenal on East 11 Mile to 19 Mile, and from Mound to Van Dyke.

But there are military contractors all across Michigan, including Bates Footwear in Big Rapids, which traces its roots to 1885 and has been one of the nation’s largest suppliers of combat boots and uniform footwear. There’s also Trijicon Inc. in Wixom, which makes advanced telescopic sniper sights, and Fab Masters Co. in Marcellus, south of Kalamazoo, which fabricates parts like window frames for military vehicles.

And the defense business remains gigantic, even as it downsizes. A single defense contract can involve many firms and institutions. One giant national contractor in the “Corridor,” General Dynamics — which makes the Abrams main battle tank and missile systems, among other items — this fall was awarded a $430-million Army contract for engineering and manufacturing services.

 

It will share the contract with 14 smaller companies — from Ann Arbor to Farmington to Eastpointe to Marquette, as well as Lawrence Technological University in Southfield and Michigan Technological University in Houghton — plus firms in other states.

The U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) let the contract, which shares the sprawling Detroit Arsenal campus in Warren with TACOM.

Not surprisingly, the state of Michigan is strongly encouraging more defense work to try to make up for the implosion of the auto industry and the impact of the national recession. The Defense Contract Coordination Center, an arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., works with PTACs and many other local business-support groups like Automation Alley and the Macomb-Oakland University INCubator to put businesses and the military together.

The groups stress the concentration of industries and the huge pool of highly skilled workers available in Michigan. “Our industrial base is second to none in the world,” Cryderman Moss stresses.

James Braden, a retired Marine colonel who recently took over as head of the coordination center in Lansing, sees opportunities for smaller businesses like former auto suppliers as the military shifts its priorities. The major auto suppliers would make parts in the hundreds of thousands for the Big 3, “but you don’t make hundreds of thousands for the military,” he says, unless a large-scale military deployment was needed.

“The focus now is to make vehicles combat-ready,” he says. That means upgrading and modernizing combat vehicles like the armored troop carrier known as MRAP, for mine-resistant ambush protected. MRAP was conceived, built, and put into service in Iraq in just 18 months, to answer the need for a troop carrier that could survive the powerful roadside bombs that were killing and wounding many soldiers.

Cryderman Moss says a portion of the military spending in the Defense Corridor in 2008 was for MRAP, which is built by several national companies but has subassemblies and components made locally.

As with any new vehicle, glitches aren’t unusual. MRAPs, for example, have had problems with air-conditioning — which is crucial in Iraq, where the temperature can hit 160 degrees Fahrenheit. And it gets even hotter inside the vehicle, says Adria Socks, a mechanical engineer who works in a huge circular test area at TARDEC’s Ground Vehicle Power and Mobility building.

With the temperature in the test area a steady 130 degrees, Socks says typical research activities include running the engines of two large MRAPs for 24 hours to check air-conditioning and power components.

A hulking vehicle that’s up to 13 feet high, with antennae and bulges everywhere, MARPs come in several models. In fact, the vehicles, albeit safe, are so cumbersome to operate that tests are being done to fit MRAPs with multiple cameras. Meanwhile, a smaller all-terrain version of the MRAP was quickly developed for mountainous areas like Afghanistan, where the big MRAP would have limited use.

The military’s need for more effective armored vehicles has boosted the fortunes of companies like W Industries in Detroit. The company, with 400 workers, started switching to defense work five years ago. “We were fabricators of material-handling racks for the Big 3 — custom bins and shipping containers were 100 percent of our business,” says Michael Accardo, W’s director of defense sales. “But now, just 2 percent of our business is tied to autos.” For the military, the company specializes in vehicle armor fabrication.

Oddly, Hurricane Katrina contributed to the company’s work in Detroit. It was a “big opportunity to get into armor,” Accardo says. When the firm’s former factory in Louisiana was flooded out, “we teamed up with other fabricators. It was our first big break” with the military.

“We expect to be affected by shrinking military business,” he continues, “but we’re now also into windmills and aerospace and the environment.”

Steve Hunt, director of defense programs at Emtech in Sterling Heights, whose 30 employees make insulation and coatings for land vehicles, says half of the company’s output a decade ago was automotive-related. But now, the military accounts for 99 percent of the work, he says.

“We’re involved in ‘reset,’ so we’re not worried about the military money drying up. We’re also seeing Homeland Security sales, and sales to foreign military, mostly British.”

But getting a defense contract is complicated. “There can be three months’ worth of paperwork” before you even approach the military, Hunt says. For example, “if you don’t have a so-called military ‘Cage’ code that the government assigns, nobody will talk to you.”

In an ironic twist, Hunts adds “the Big 3 is approaching us for work, now that half of their supply base has disappeared.”

Fab Masters, the company near Kalamazoo, got into the military contracting business by approaching the Macomb PTAC, “which is at the center of things,” says marketing director Tom Deisinger. His company has 122 employees.

“They taught us who to talk to and how to get ready and prepare certifications,” he says. “Many things have to be in place or they (the military) stop talking to you. PTAC also taught us to be brief. But if you think you’re going to get a contract in the first year, you’re dreaming.”

Accardo, of W Industries, says there are two paths to military money. “You can go to the government directly for a contract, or work through a tier 1 or tier 2 prime military contractor like Oshkosh Defense or General Dynamics,” he says. “There’s a lot less fine print to get jobs through prime contractors.”

The National Defense Industrial Association, whose corporate members include many large defense companies like General Dynamics and Oshkosh, organizes many conferences, like the combat vehicle event in Dearborn.

The head of the association’s Michigan chapter, Larry Rink, is director of integrated logistics support for defense contractor, AM General. “Defense is a fast-growing industry that is becoming more and more important” to the Detroit area, he says, and “having (U.S. Sen.) Carl Levin as chairman of the Armed Services Committee doesn’t hurt Michigan.”

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