Raytheon announcement in Meridian has a familiar synergy

Published 10:10 am Wednesday, December 14, 2016

In Meridian and Lauderdale County, excitement is high over the possibility of some 450 high-quality, high-tech jobs that will come to the community should defense contractor Raytheon win U.S. Air Force approval of their innovative T-100 Integrated Air Training System proposal.

Following defense industry news on the project in late October, Raytheon joined state, regional and local economic development partners and members of the state’s congressional delegation this week to formally announce the company’s intent to build the proposed jet trainer system for the Air Force in Meridian.

Raytheon is competing against a Boeing/SAAB team, a Northrup Grumman team that includes BAE Systems and L-3, and a Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries team for the Air Force contract.

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On the economic development front, the Raytheon announcement is a huge win for Gov. Phil Bryant and the Mississippi Development Authority, the East Miss. Business Development Council, City of Meridian and Lauderdale County leaders, two major area foundations (Riley Foundation and the Phil Hardin Foundation), regional community colleges and Mississippi State University.

The process brings to mind a similar set of economic development circumstances along Interstate 20 more than 30 years ago. There was an old Sunbeam clock factory east of Forest that closed, then was reborn in 1984 as Hughes Aircraft when two Democrats, the late U.S. Sen. John Stennis and former U.S. Rep. Sonny Montgomery, steered the defense giant there.

That company now does business as Raytheon Systems and over its history has manufactured EPLS backpack radios for the Marines and the Army, the MK-48 torpedo for the Navy, and the Avenger missile system and the Sentinel radar system for the Army – many of the weapons systems relied upon most by the U.S. military since the 9-11 attacks.

The Avenger missile system was a mobile missile launch system mounted on a HumVee that could launch eight Stinger missiles and fire about 100 50 cal. machines gun rounds.

It was Montgomery’s influence in the 1990s that paved the way for the Mississippi Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 204th Air Defense Artillery to become the first National Guard organization in the nation to receive the Avenger Air Defense System.

In the post-9-11 era, Mississippi National Guardsmen from Newton, Decatur, Forest, Bay Springs, and Morton were deployed as part of the homeland defense mission in the continental U.S. The role of the Mississippi congressional delegation in both landing the original Hughes Aircraft plant and then transitioning to new defense contracts to keep those plants operating over three decades can’t be understated.

First Stennis and Montgomery, then to U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott worked to assure that part of the nation’s defense work went to Mississippi workers willing to train to successfully perform high reliability electronics work in the plants. Eventually, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper would be key influencers in the progression of the Forest plant.

Defense appropriations have always been a highly political exercise. While the clout of Mississippi’s political establishment certainly helped secure the plant’s 30-year tenure, the bottom line has been the reliable quality of the work done by those workers.

Now some 32 years later for Raytheon, those same economic development stars are in alignment. Led by Cochran as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mississippi’s congressional delegation is in a position in both the Senate and the House to help guide these new defense jobs to a Mississippi work force that already has proven their worth to Raytheon.

Beyond the T-100 project alone, the synergy for developing related jobs exists as it did for the Forest plant.  Think the location of the Air Force training project in Meridian doesn’t impact the fortunes of Mississippi’s air bases? What about Mississippi’s National Guard units?

From shipbuilding on the Gulf Coast to rocket testing in Hancock County to air bases at Columbus and Meridian and numerous defense manufacturing plants across the state, this kind of economic development works for Mississippi and points up the value of congressional seniority for small states like ours.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.