The military’s $26.5 billion annual economic impact on San Diego is not likely to change significantly as the years progress, the Navy’s top officer, Adm. Gary Roughead, told a group of reporters Aug. 26 during a visit to San Diego.
This comes as the Pentagon pushes to decrease overhead costs and put limited funds toward operational forces.
“I won’t look into the crystal ball and tell you how many decimal points things will move,” Roughead said. “But I think that when you look at the force structure that we have here, I don’t see it changing very much.”
San Diego has an extensive network of Navy and Marine Corps bases and is home to 53 Navy ships. It will be home to several Littoral Combat Ships, the new design designed to fight in shallow coastal waters.
In addition, the Navy is bringing a complement of “Romeo” submarine-hunting helicopters to San Diego. What’s more, Roughead said, the Navy has a strong interest in unmanned systems and other technological expertise that San Diego offers.
The admiral made his comments during a wide-ranging interview following a speech to the San Diego Rotary Club at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina on Harbor Island.
The San Diego Military Advisory Council, a local nonprofit, calculates the military’s local presence is worth $26.5 billion yearly, taking into account both direct and indirect spending.
Roughead’s trip to San Diego included swinging through Denver, where he spoke to a convention of robot builders put together by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The Navy continues to have an interest in unmanned aircraft, such as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft, aka BAMS, and the Fire Scout autonomous helicopter. Both are products of Northrop Grumman Corp. Northrop does engineering on both in San Diego.
The Navy is planning to put Northrop’s Fire Scout helicopter on the Littoral Combat Ship.
Roughead acknowledged the just-revealed incident where a Fire Scout lost contact with its operator and headed into restricted airspace in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 2. Operators eventually made contact with the craft and took control.
The admiral said he was made aware of the incident as it was happening.
“My view is we’re dealing with some pretty high-end technology,” Roughead said. “I’m not being cavalier about it and I’m not minimizing the fact that we have to be extraordinarily safe, but I think it’s important that when we’re doing things with the Fire Scout and unmanned systems that every once in a while, it’s not going to go exactly as you want it to go.”
“We’re never going to do anything that’s unsafe for our people,” he added.
The Navy is conducting tests of the BAMS aircraft — a variant of the Global Hawk with instruments optimized for monitoring bodies of water — in southwest Asia. Roughead reported the crews there don’t want to give their test aircraft back. “I think BAMS is going to be big,” he said.
The Navy is also developing an unmanned carrier-based aircraft, which Roughead said would likely enter widespread service “in 10 years or so.”
Increased Ship Repair Funding
The Navy’s interest, however, extends beyond aircraft that are unmanned. For example, it is considering how to use robots that travel beneath the surface of the water.
“From our point of view, the Navy is an important and growing client,” said Michael B. Jones, chief financial officer of Seabotix Inc., a San Diego-based maker of small undersea robots that has 48 employees and $8.3 million in 2009 revenue. Jones said the company has been growing at 35 percent yearly.
Roughead said when he was at the Denver conference, he challenged companies to give him robots with plenty of endurance. He also said he wanted to buy systems that can specifically operate off of a ship or submarine. Roughead said he didn’t want to replicate what the Army or Air Force might buy.
Turning to the Navy’s more traditional craft, Roughead said the service’s 2011 budget request increases the amount of ship repair money, growing its operation and maintenance account by 6 percent. Six percent is large compared to previous years, Roughead said. “It doesn’t sound like much but it’s pretty significant.”
Derry Pence, chief executive officer of the Port of San Diego Ship Repair Association, said he was happy to hear the amount of surface ship repair funds proposed for the Pacific Fleet. Pence said he hears San Diego could get upward of $600 million — and that amount does not include modernization money.
Congress has yet to approve the funds.