Pentagon to get more continuity in buying arms and a gunmaker finds his optimism coming back
Saco, Maine — They start out as nondescript steel rods stacked on pallets like cordwood. After a plethora of machine-chattering processes, they trundle off the assembly line as sleek M-60 and M-2 machine guns -- part of the stuffing of the US arsenal.
The flow of weapons out of the Maremont Corporation's sprawling plant in this salt- scented coastal town hasn't hit its peak since the Vietnam war. But that may soon change.
With the Reagan administration's planned major rearmament program, Maremont officials are more bullish about the future.
"I'm more optimistic about this country's capacity to be defensible," says Berge Thomasian, company vice-president and general manager, easing into in a black-leather chair beneath a sketch of an M-60 machine gun. "There is no excuse for guys to run around with broomsticks in their hands when the time comes."
Mr. Thomasian's buoyant outlook is mirrored by many in the nation's labyrinthine defense industry. Detonating much of the excitement is one simple figure -- $1.46 trillion, the amount the Reagan administration plans to spend over the next five years to beef up the arsenal.
Besides the impending Pentagon shopping spree, however, there is growing optimism that the administration will take definite steps to prop up the sagging defense industrial base itself.In recent months the Pentagon has been shaping behind-the-scenes plans to alter its procurement policies and boost the productivity and efficiency of defense contractors.
Defense sources say the plans includes expanding plant capacities, modernizing equipment, and cutting down on the amount of red tape in defense contracting. In the next few years, as much as $400 million to $500 million could be spent each year to make the industry more fit and trim for jumping quickly into wartime production, according to a highplaced Pentagon official.
"There is no one panacea, but I think they [Pentagon officials] have enough initiatives going to move the industry ahead," says Jean Caffiaux, vice-president of the government division at the Electronic Industries Association in Washington, an industry group.
Analysts inside and outside the defense industry contend the military machine needs plenty of oiling. With fatter defense budgets ahead, some envisions Pentagon orders piling up at shipyards and aerospace plants for years. Many of the bottlenecks are likely to come in the smaller subcontracting areas -- the layers of casting makers and suppliers of glass, rubber, plastics, special metals, and other support materials. Already many goods have long lead times. Delivery of airborne radar systems, for instance, can take more than two years from the time the orders is placed -- up from 12 to 14 months just a few years ago.
In the lean years of the early and mid1970S, dozens of small subconractors dropped out of the roller-coaster defense industry altogether. Luring them back into a business fraught with uncertainly and piles of federal paper work will not be easy.
For now, many of the Pentagon's ideas to prop up the industrial base are only in the planning stages. They haven't become official policy and are already drawing plenty of fire. Many economists worry that a revved-up defense machine will siphon off scarce supplies of capital and skilled labor.
Multiyear contracting is one Pentagon palliative that seems about to be put into practice.
"It puts an Element of continuity into the business," Allen E. Puckett, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Hughes Aircraft Company, told the Monitor. "It make it easier for small suppliers to stay in in industry."
At Maremont's brick-and-steel plant, Berge Thomasian would also like to jot more long-range contracts in his order book. As it is now, he says, the company is "lucky to have a one-year backlog of business." To launch a new weapons line from scratch, he adds, would take at least two years -- too long to permit responding to an emergency.
The lead time on delivery of machine guns at the plant has almost doubled over the past decade (to more than a year), largely as a result of delays in getting forgings, castings, and certain metals. Still, Maremont officials see the pro-defense mood in the country leading to some changes.
The company is the country's only producer of certain models of machine guns and a major supplier of gun barrels. But there is talk in corporate circles of one day expanding into other weapon lines.
For Darren Shay, hunched over a drill that's boring a hole in the barrel of a 20.-mm Gatling gun, fatter defense budgets and talk of shoring up the industry meam more job security. "The way I look at it, "says the t-shirted drill operator, "the more guns they ord er, the more work I have,"