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Monday, January 1, 2007

editor’s notebook: Ebb and Flow

By James T. McKenna

A NEW YEAR IS UPON US, AND IT promises great change.

Of course, every new year brings change, in the form of a new birthday candle and more grey strands. But too often one year passes to the next with barely a burble. We strive to embrace the occasion by staying home from work, popping corks, tossing confetti and streamers, and sharing champagne. We trot out icons of a grey-haired, bearded old man and a swaddling babe to remind us of the annual milestone’s passage, casting off the old year and welcoming the new. Still, in the week that follows we will write year-old checks.

Banks may still cash a lot of 2006 checks in the new year, and I suspect 2006 may give us cause to remember it.

One major change for the United States, and for the world, is the 110th Congress, which convenes this month. This brings into the majority in the legislature members of political parties other than the one that controls the executive branch of government.

This is always a good thing in the American system of government, whose trust among its citizens is founded on the premise that the disparate branches will check each other’s ambitions and excesses. Republicans and Democrats alike are inclined to consider that system of checks and balances inefficient and annoying — until theirs is the party out of power, when it becomes essential to the well-being of the nation. The consistency of that minority view is enough to persuade me that America is always better off when parties share power.

(Please note that in introducing this discussion I referred to the "parties" other than that holding the White House; the Democrats control the Senate only by virtue of an informal alliance with two "independent" members — Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernard Sanders of Vermont. That certainly will humble the "majority" and temper its ambitions — a situation of even greater benefit to the nation’s welfare.)

These checks and balances become more important when the party in the White House considers itself beyond the reach of and superior to the legislature and judiciary, as the Bush administration does. It vigorously embraces and applies the "unitary executive" theory that Congress and the courts have only limited ability to interfere with how the president runs the government. This theory seems counter to civics lessons on how American government works and, in fact, to how it has worked for the better part of 200 years. It is an unsettling theory whether advocated by a Republican or Democratic Party president.

Checks and balances become even more important when America is involved in wars as dangerous as those today — one in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere that was thrust upon it and the world by terrorists and the other, in Iraq, undertaken voluntarily in a manner that some experts now feel threatens to destabilize one of the world’s most volatile regions.

The November election has already wrought change beyond a new majority in Congress. It has forced President Bush to consider a new course in Iraq. Before the final votes were tallied, his man of war, Donald Rumsfeld, was on his way out. By early December, the United States had a new defense secretary, Robert Gates, who told Senators at his confirmation hearing that the nation is not winning the war in Iraq and joined the ranks of those warning that a "regional conflagration" could result if that country is not stabilized in short order.

What does all that have to do with rotorcraft? First, with helicopters as essential tactical elements for both the war against terrorists and in Iraq, the rotorcraft industry is strained to the point that it is difficult to support combat operations.

No one would complain that Sikorsky Aircraft has more H-60 orders than it can handle in Stratford and must look elsewhere in the United States and abroad for production capacity to satisfy international demand for that aircraft. Nor would one bemoan the fact that Boeing would have to expand its Philadelphia plant to produce the 141 or so combat search-and-rescue Chinooks the U.S. Air Force is ordering.

But at the same time, Sikorsky is wrestling with spares quality-control problems and Boeing must negotiate with the U.S. Army to forgo critical CH-47 delivery slots so it can deliver vitally needed airplanes to Canada, a key ally in combat. For its part, the U.S. Marine Corps is juggling how to quickly field a successor to its heavy-lift CH-53Es as it is using up the limited life remaining in its Super Stallions faster than ever.

Military demands necessarily divert attention and resources from civil rotorcraft operations. Key pilots are in short supply and aircraft delivery times are high and growing. These stem from the robust condition of the civil industry as much as the military’s appetite for aircraft and staffing. The result on the civil side is that operators must forgo the opportunity to net more business because they don’t have aircraft or pilots to fly them. On the military side, we are exhausting our aircraft fleets, as well as the troops who fix and fly them, cutting into the development of leaders for future conflicts, and leaving ourselves stretched thin should other hot spots flare.

If our leaders are wise, they will chart a course that ease the military’s frantic operational tempo while fully supporting anti-terrorist operations and allowing commerce to proceed apace. If not, we may find our foes emboldened and our economies and livelihoods at greater risk. Their actions in the coming year will set that course and determine how well we manage the challenges before us.

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