Future of Army cannon, jobs uncertain in Fridley

The Non-Line of Sight Cannon
This is an early version of the non-line-of-sight-cannon - the weapon that is being built at BAE Systems in Fridley. The weapon's production could be cut by the government.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army

A year ago, political and military leaders visited the BAE Systems plant in Fridley to see a piece of the Army's future: The prototype of a large cannon or Howitzer - a vehicle that moves quickly and fires off shots rapidly. The so-called Non-Line-of-Sight-Cannon is part of the Army's $160 billion modernization effort.

But in April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled his upcoming budget. He listed several things he doesn't like about the cannon and other vehicles in the program, including the budget, the contract and the even aspects of design.

"Where lower weight, higher fuel efficiency and greater informational awareness are expected to compensate for less armor," Gates said in April.

That design, he said, doesn't reflect the lessons learned from warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. So Gates killed the part of the modernization effort that includes the large cannon being conceived in Fridley. Late last night, the House Armed Services Committee approved the 2010 Defense Department spending bill. The committee did nothing to spare the cannon.

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About 1,800 people work at BAE Systems in Fridley and, according to a company spokesman, about 400 people have jobs connected to the cannon. And with the legislative gears still grinding away, engineers at BAE can only speculate about whether jobs will be lost.

"Everybody is in speculation mode like that and BAE Systems is doing whatever we can to protect that job," said BAE's Communications Manager Ryan May. "But in the end, what can you say? You just don't know."

The company has seen this before. In 2002, the Army cancelled the Crusader project - another leaner howitzer made by BAE. The next day the company received the contract to build the non-line-of-sight cannon. No replacement work appears as imminent this time.

But May said the company has diversified to cushion the blow. The Senate Armed Service Committee must still approve the Defense Department's budget, and the two houses of Congress must reconcile any differences in defense spending. But BAE spokesman Ryan May said the big defense contractor, which employs 100,000 worldwide, doesn't see the wisdom in fighting Congress to preserve the cannon.

"We intend not to fight this to the bitter end," May said. "We've had that fight before with Crusader and it was a brutal, bloody battle where I think both sides ended up being a little bruised at the end of the day."

The office of Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents Fridley, said Ellison is concerned about potential job loss from scrapping the cannon and hopes, that should Congress make it final, there will be job transition support available to those who need it.