John D. Harris II: R.I. jobs depend on robust defense industry
Thursday, July 17, 2014

The defense industry already plays a vital role in the Rhode Island economy. This sector supports some 12,000 local jobs. Over 400 firms throughout the state have contracts with the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Defense. And the economic activity in Rhode Island resulting from defense work totals more than $1.7 billion a year — or about 2 percent of state GDP.

This industry is poised for serious growth in the future. But making good on that potential requires cooperation from our elected representatives. In particular, defense firms need to be given full access to foreign markets, which are dense with customers eager to avail themselves of American technological ingenuity.

Fortunately, one of our lawmakers, Rep. David Cicilline (D-Providence), of whom I’m a proud constituent, is actively working to open up these channels for international sales. If successful, this effort will bring new jobs and opportunity to Rhode Island.

Domestic sales still represent the bulk of American defense industry revenues. Private contractors continue to provide our military personnel with the most innovative weaponry in the world.

But there are now big opportunities for new growth overseas. Total weapons sales internationally have boomed in recent years and now total over $85 billion.

But competition is fierce. Already, major new players from Russia and China have entered the market and siphoned away sales traditionally secured by American firms. Foreign governments have also entered the mix, with public agencies in Europe and elsewhere now actively bidding on private weapons-development contracts.

Repesentative Cicilline has been a constant advocate for job growth in Rhode Island. And as part of that effort he has pushed for legislation that would enhance local defense firms’ access to foreign territories.

At a committee hearing last fall, he explained that international defense sales have become “really critical” to job growth in Rhode Island. He has also proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act requesting that defense plans through 2018 detail how American companies might be able to equip Afghan security forces.

And as an advocate for streamlining the process of foreign defense sales, Representative Cicilline has worked to improve the information provided to domestic exporters to keep them competitive when vying for international contracts.

Securing robust international sales for American defense firms would not just fuel economic growth — it would also improve our national defense. A country that buys from the United States is unlikely to turn around and use those same weapons against us. To do so would be to bite the hand that feeds. That economic exchange cements a diplomatic relationship. 

Streamlining international commercial channels for American defense firms would greatly benefit the Rhode Island economy. The defense industry already plays an essential role in our state. New sales would translate into new jobs and growth. 

Representative Cicilline’s work to expand the markets available to local defense contractors ought to be applauded. But the next step is turning that passion into actual policy that bolsters local firms, creates new opportunities for foreign sales, and fuels job growth in Rhode Island for decades to come.

 John D. Harris II is vice president of business development for Raytheon Company and chief executive officer of Raytheon International.


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