The United States must protect its military industrial base, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday during a visit to the shipyard of Electric Boat, a Navy contractor whose plans to step up production of multibillion-dollar submarines could be hurt by deficit-trimming cuts in Washington.
With the hulking submarine Mississippi as a backdrop, Panetta told some 200 shipyard workers in a frigid rain that cuts that would take effect if a congressional panel fails to agree on a deficit-trimming plan would "hollow out" the U.S. military.
"If I have to cut another $500, $600 billion out of defense, it decimates defense," he said. "It's going to totally hollow out the force."
The visit comes at an anxious time for Electric Boat and other military contractors tracking developments in Washington, where the 12-member panel has until Thanksgiving to agree on how to save at least $1.2 trillion and avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts to the Pentagon budget.
Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics Corp., began work this year producing two Virginia-class attack submarines annually in conjunction with a Huntington Ingalls Industries shipyard in Newport News, Va. The company is also working on the design of submarines to replace the aging Ohio-class submarines.
In a question-and-answer session with the hard-hatted shipyard workers, Panetta didn't say specifically how spending on submarines might be affected by the automatic cuts _ a process known as sequestration. But he said earlier this week that the projected number of Ohio-replacement subs, which are scheduled to be built beginning in 2019, could be reduced from 12 to 10.
Panetta urged congressional leaders and the so-called super committee to "suck it up" and find a way to balance the budget.
"I think the country wants these people to govern. That's why we elected them _ to govern, not to just survive in office," he said. "That involves risk, that involves tough choices. That's what democracy is all about."
Unions representing the shipyard workers say they told Panetta in a meeting that major cuts in production could lead to erosion of highly specialized skills.
"If you let those go dormant for a while, they will have a very hard time reconstituting this workforce," said Kenneth DelaCruz, president of the Metal Trades Council at Electric Boat, which has about 2,200 members in Groton.
Panetta said he was wary of cuts that would lead to a withering of American military might, similar to the situation after World War II.
"We're the strongest military in the world today, and we're going to remain the strongest military," he said. "We cannot have a strong defense for the United States without protecting this industrial base."
In the event of a crisis, America needs to be able to mobilize and produce its own planes, tanks and submarines, he said.
"I don't need to rely on another country. We've got rely on the United States to do that," Panetta said to cheers from the workers.
Groton is known as the submarine capital of the world because it hosts Electric Boat and Naval Submarine Base New London, and the industry is a key component of the economy in southeastern Connecticut.
After a tour of the still-under-construction Mississippi, he thanked Electric Boat personnel for producing the Virginia-class submarines ahead of schedule and below cost. The Mississippi is scheduled to be commissioned in December, a year ahead of schedule.
"That's the kind of partnership we need," he said.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat who has advocated for stepped-up submarine production, said it was important for Panetta to see the shipyard firsthand because there will be competition among Pentagon programs if sequestration takes place.
"For him to be able to see this up close, it makes a more powerful impression," he said.