Print Friendly and PDF

Protecting Freedom, Protecting Jobs

State’s defense industry offers innovation, opportunity in cyber era 

By James Mitchell

Page 46

As robotics, cybersecurity and autonomous vehicle technology rapidly redefine warfare and homeland security, the companies, contractors and states that do business in the defense industry must reinvent themselves. Creating the technologies needed to win on the battlefield, cyber or otherwise, is big business that’s only going to be bigger.

With that opportunity comes increased competition. Michigan’s ability to maintain and expand its defense sector by building on its existing assets will go a long way toward achieving economic prosperity for decades to come. Success won’t be a matter of simply relying on tradition, it will require a coordinated effort to keep Michigan at the forefront of innovation. With contracts in the state valued at upwards of $1 billion, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“It goes back to the premise that when you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” said Sean Carlson, vice president of the Michigan Economic Protecting Jobs Development Corp. and its Michigan Defense Center. “We’re focused on making sure we have a good, strategic plan in place for moving forward.”

Collectively that plan is billed as “Protect and Grow,” which Carlson said aims to first maintain the already substantial defense contracts that impact communities throughout Michigan. Businesses in 67 of the state’s 83 counties currently have prime contracts, with upwards of 4,000 companies representing more than 100,000 workers. Only the auto industry, agriculture and tourism bring more dollars into Michigan than defense contracts.

“This has been a crown jewel, but people haven’t always paid attention to it,” Carlson said. “The defense industry has always been in the shadow of the auto industry, and we’re trying to increase and elevate awareness of it.”

Adding to the Arsenal

The second part of the equation is to expand on the foundation of the Detroit Arsenal and its many components that impact Michigan’s economy and thousands of Michigan companies statewide through procurement, and employs more than 8,000 workers.

In 2013 the state of Michigan launched a statewide strategy to preserve and lure defense contractors.

“We already had the epicenter of defense contractors,” said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who for years has billed Michigan as the “Defense Capital of the Midwest.”

Macomb County made a logical starting point, where more than 600 companies are working contracts. The grant and other initiatives, Hackel said, aimed to consolidate a growing number of defense-related opportunities.

“We started working with industry leaders and the community,” Hackel said. “TARDEC was an incredible asset that was under-recognized and not really promoted enough. Now the objective is to connect with other assets.”

Potential expansion reaches far beyond the metro Detroit area and includes more than just the auto industry foundation. Hackel said the dramatic rise of high-tech defense work, with cybersecurity among the top growth industries for both conventional business and a nation’s defense. In 2014, Macomb launched the Michigan Automotive and Defense Cyber Assurance Team (MADCAT) to add the next generation of security devices to the state’s arsenal.

“It creates a hub for testing in auto- and defense-related work for this new wave of technology,” Hackel said.

By retro-fitting existing defense and automotive resources, the goal is to expand the state’s leadership role in the world of connected and automated vehicles.

“Defense has been looking at that for years, and they’re looking for the same things we are,” said Hackel, who stressed the need for federal support and funding for the initiatives to succeed and promote growth.

Beneficiaries of the various initiatives include more than just the Big Three auto companies, especially in the specialized, high-tech fields.

“Small businesses have key things to contribute – our agility, responsiveness and ability to innovate,” said Keith Johnson, president of ThermoAnalytics, a Calumetbased supplier with offices in Novi and facilities in Europe.

Johnson said the company is currently working a Small Business Innovation Research contract valued at $30 million, through which its 65 employees are developing software used by both defense and automotive interests.

“By bringing in small businesses across the state there are unique opportunities to do things that are really innovative,” Johnson said. “To lose what we have here would be a huge detriment to the country, and in Michigan it would take years to rebuild that infrastructure.”

All Together Now

These recent initiatives mark a new beginning of sorts for the decades-old partnerships between Michigan industries and the armed forces.

“We’ve never before had an overall coordinated effort like this,” said Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, adjutant general and director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “There have been great, individual initiatives, but it had never been coordinated with the right hand knowing what the left hand was doing.”

Just in the past year or so, Vadnais said there have been significant additions to the arsenal: A $35 million investment at Selfridge to equip and staff a new fuel distribution system; a 72-member “cyber squadron” that made the state one of the first to host a cybersecurity team; and the 147,000-acre Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, “one of the crown jewels” that Vadnais said hosts the largest airspace complex in the nation.

From a defense perspective, Vadnais said the goal is to maintain national security in an era where battlefields themselves have explored new territories. The reaches of outer space and the networks of the cyber world have joined the traditional land, sea and air theaters of war.

“We’re able to touch on all five domains of warfare,” Vadnais said. “We’re trying to leverage our capabilities to bring in more federal dollars and support. I think we’ve got a great plan to do that with the initiatives and collaborations with the civilian sector.”

Carlson said the MEDC has spent the past year taking stock of the state’s arsenal. And through partnerships with military organizations, educational institutions and the state’s rebounding industries, Michigan is well-positioned to provide both for the common defense and the local economy. The agency recently launched a Bid Targeting System along with proposal-writing services to assist businesses in the pursuit of defense related contracts.

“A lot of great things are happening,” Carlson said. “We’ve always owned mobility in Michigan, but we can’t fall asleep at the switch. We’re not only protecting our jobs, but our freedoms.”

James Mitchell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.