Originally created 03/04/03

Military spends $2 billion in Carolinas; War could bring more



CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The U.S. military spent more than $2 billion on work contracts performed in North and South Carolina in 2002, a number that should go even higher this year with the prospect of war in Iraq.

In Valdese, about 70 miles northwest of Charlotte, workers at Saft are going around the clock to meet increased production demands from the military for lightweight lithium batteries used in communications devices and missile guidance systems.

"Our employees know that when the batteries go out (of the plant), they can mean life or death for the soldiers," said Thomas Alcide, Saft's lithium battery group general manager.

Federal records show a total of $1.3 billion of business was performed for the military in North Carolina in fiscal year 2002, which ended in September. Another $1.1 billion was spent in South Carolina. Both states are in the middle of the pack nationally for military spending.

Federal spending on Carolinas military contracts increased by nearly 4 percent from the 2001 to the 2002 fiscal year. Data on individual contracts was available for 2001, when there were nearly 11,000 projects in the Carolinas involving more than 1,500 companies.

Duct tape, made by Shurtape Technologies Inc. in Alexander County, got a lot of recent attention when federal officials advised people to stock up in case of biological or chemical attack. Spokesman Jeff Pierce said his company supplies the military indirectly, selling about 2.8 million square yards per year at a discount to the Cincinnati Association for the Blind, which sells to the military.

That's enough tape to go around the globe, and then some - but not in the traditional silver color. The military's version of duct tape is olive drab.

In Columbia, S.C., FN Manufacturing said it supplies more than 70 percent of all rifles and belt-fed machine guns to the U.S. military. This includes M-16 automatic rifles and M-240 machine guns.

FN has seen an increase in demand for spare parts and expects to have more sales this year than last, contracts and sales director Jeff Rankin said.

At the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, a research team is helping design a new generation of computer memory devices for the Air Force. UNCC is one of several universities collaborating to design a computer memory device the size of a sugar cube that can handle more memory than a traditional flat disc and survive extreme heat and cold, associate provost Stephen Mosier said.

All told, the military is sponsoring 13 research projects at UNCC worth a combined $3.7 million, Mosier said. Duke, Clemson, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and UNC-Chapel Hill also have military contracts.

Military spending in the Carolinas covers a wide range of areas, from Greensboro-based Lorillard supplying cigarettes for military commissaries to a Beaufort, S.C., funeral home that handles work for the Navy and Marines at nearby Parris Island.

UNCC economist Ronald Madsen noted that military work accounted for less than 0.5 percent of the North Carolina's productivity. While suppliers can expect to see a surge in business in the event of war with Iraq, Madsen doubted there would be much of boost to the regional economy.

The government's totals for military spending includes work done in the two states by companies based outside them. It does not include work done in other states by Carolinas companies.

Some of the work goes to North and South Carolina convicts, who handled $8.6 million worth of jobs for the federal prison industry's program called Unicor. Military contracts nationwide account for about 60 percent of Unicor's $583 million in sales, spokeswoman Ruth Bracken said.

Low-security prisoners at the Butner facility north of Raleigh make shirts and swim trunks for the Navy and dress shirts for the Air Force. In Edgefield, S.C., medium-security prisoners make clothing, while in Estill, S.C., they rebuild vehicle alternators, generators, starters and transmissions for the Marines.

At Curtiss-Wright Controls in Gastonia, workers take pride in keeping the nation's fleet of F-16 fighter jets running. They refurbish gear boxes that move the planes' wing flaps, said Kenneth Lewis, management and development director for the company's New Jersey-based parent.

Lewis, of Charlotte, is a a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves. "Now, I could be called up, and I want to be sure the equipment in the field is as reliable as possible," he said.