Cargo bid may please Fla. and Miss. delegations

With competition intensifying for the Pentagon’s new cargo aircraft, one of the European contenders for the lucrative deal has chosen production and engineering sites for the plane in Florida and Mississippi.

That could pack a significant congressional punch for Finmeccanica’s Alenia North America in a high-stakes competition that could grant the Italian-parented company a foothold in the U.S. military contracting.

Alenia has formed a team with L-3 Communications and Boeing to offer the C-27J for the Army and Air Force’s joint cargo-aircraft program.

During this year’s Farnborough Air Show, the team announced that it had selected Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla., as the site for the production and final assembly.

The team, with L-3 as prime contractor, also said it will establish an engineering, logistics and support center in Madison, Miss., if the C-27J Spartan is selected.

“Cecil Field is an ideal location for final assembly of the C-27J,” said Ron Marcotte, vice president and general manager for Boeing Global Mobility Systems. “The site has everything required in terms of infrastructure — excellent road, rail, port and airport networks and facilities.”

Florida is home to several influential lawmakers. Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and in the House Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R) is part of the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) could also wield influence as the chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, though Jacksonville is not in his district.

In Mississippi, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran (R), could offer support for defense-related contracts in his state with backing from Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

The contract, estimated at up to $6 billion, is expected to include 145 cargo planes delivered over the next five years.

A team led by Raytheon Corp. and EADS CASA North America, offering both the CASA C-295 and CN-235 two-engine aircraft, is also vying for the work. The team has said it would assemble its planes at the Mobile Regional Airport, creating about 150 jobs.

Fresh off its win for an Army helicopter program, European aerospace giant EADS already enjoys strong support from GOP Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.), veteran defense appropriators. Mobile is in the district of Rep. Jo Bonner.

U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin, a latecomer to the competition, is offering a short-fuselage version of the C-130 J cargo aircraft. Lockheed wields significant power on Capitol Hill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee decided to slash almost all funding from the Army’s funding request for the aircraft, money the service argues is left over from its cancellation of the Comanche helicopter. The Senate cut $109 million out of the $113 million request, a hole that will have to be addressed in conference with the House, which left the request intact.

Pentagon acquisition czar Kenneth Krieg directed the Army and Air Force to establish the program because the two services had similar needs for cargo transport. The Army, which had been pushing for the aircraft well before the Air Force came on board, wants its first aircraft by 2008 and the Air Force by 2010, but the cut in funding can delay the Army and Air Force by two years, service officials said.

The Senate is waiting for a completed joint analysis of alternatives to consider moving the program forward, sources said.