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Defense industry dividends on way to Clay County

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are paying dividends to Mississippi. A West Point branch of a national firm is the latest recipient of a multi-million dollar defense contract.

A new, massive vehicle designed to fend off improvised explosive devices (IEDs), bombs, bullets and grenades as it transports U.S. Marines will be assembled at the former Babcock & Wilcox plant in the Clay County seat.

In a midday press conference June 4, government and company officials lauded the $623-million contract with International Military and Government Inc. (IMAG) — to employ approximately 350 — as a boon for an area hard hit by pork processor Sara Lee’s closure earlier this year.

“We’re still in a deficit because of Sara Lee, which employed 2,500 people two years ago,” Tim Climer, president of The Clay County Community Growth Alliance (The Alliance), said before the announcement. “Our unemployment is far and away the worst in the state.”

Clay County unemployment topped 18% in April. Climer said that even before the Sara Lee and other closures, unemployment averaged 11% to 13%.

International’s contract for the officially designated Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) is a collaborative effort with Israeli armor firm Plasan Sasa. The initial contract is for 1,200 of the massive vehicles. Each vehicle seats six in the rear, with seats for two crew members up front. Various armaments can be installed on the MaxxPro.

One of its key features is a v-shaped bottom hull designed to deflect landmine or IED explosions outward, away from the occupants.

“This is the largest defense contract approved this year,” U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker told the approximately 200 audience members. He said 20 would be produced this month, 25 in July, 70 in August and 100 in September until production peaks at 175-200 per month.

The West Point plant, which employed more than 500 up until last summer when a prior International contract ended, is scheduled to complete the Marine Corps order by next spring. No speakers addressed the brief contract period, though several expressed a desire for International to be selected to receive additional MRAP contracts that could produce up to 17,000 of the vehicles for other terrestrial-based military units.

“This is not going away,” said West Point Mayor Scott Ross. “I’m convinced this is just the beginning.”

Archie Massicotte, IMAG president, said he kept a small skeleton crew at the plant during the past year because “I knew there would be another program coming into West Point, Miss.”

He anticipates some changes in future models, as battlefield conditions dictate: “This is ‘the best is yet to come’ (scenario).”

Dan Ustian, Navistar International Corp. president, chairman and CEO, said he “is confident we will be here for a long time.”

After the formal ceremony, Ustian explained that the component parts of the 35,000-pound vehicle — engine, interior gear, armor plates, etc. — will be manufactured at other International plants. They will be shipped to West Point and assembled there.

He pointed out MRAP is built on International’s heavy-truck chassis and, should the chassis or engine or both be damaged, the armored passenger compartment can be set on a new chassis. “It’s all bolted,” he said, pointing to bolt holes in a partially completed MRAP on display.

“In just two days, you can drive a chassis under the armament and repair the vehicle.”

Ustian said he is “confident we can prove what we are paid to do” and land future contracts for the vehicles, should the wars continue and the military decides to purchase more. Speculation on defense industry-oriented Web sites is that Humvees will eventually be replaced by vehicles, like MRAP, deemed safer for occupants.

“Don’t believe any of this stuff about a ‘level playing field’ in economic development,” Gov. Haley Barbour said about landing the West Point assembly operation. “We made sure the field was greased the right way.”

He introduced the day’s final speaker, Aaron Rice, a former Marine who worked in Barbour’s 2003 election campaign and later lost his left leg while driving a Humvee in Iraq. Rice said he was sure he would not have become an amputee had he been driving an MRAP rather than the lightly armored Humvee.

Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, said International is eligible for some tax credits, depending on how many people it hires and how long they’re employed.

“And we’re still discussing what public infrastructure — water and sewer improvements — they may need.”


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