- Associated Press - Thursday, July 3, 2014

LILLINGTON, N.C. (AP) - At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, companies that supplied the military were on top of the world.

That was true even on East McNeill Street in Lillington, where a once humming manufacturing plant sat under U.S. and Swedish flags.

But the American war in Iraq is over. And the war in Afghanistan is winding down. Meanwhile, the military is undergoing cuts in the face of shrinking budgets, leading to an end of free-spending days from years past.

In 2007, Saab Barracuda in Lillington had 350 employees working around the clock, five days a week to make camouflage netting for the U.S. military. The company’s 80,000-square-foot manufacturing floor was filled with activity.

Seven years later, the brick building isn’t humming as much as it used to. The manufacturing floor is largely empty, with just a few employees working the proprietary machines used by the company. A few more employees use sewing machines in the corner.

Saab Barracuda is down to just more than 60 employees, officials said. The plant goes weeks at a time without running, and officials recently introduced a 32-hour workweek for the remaining employees.

In 2007, the Lillington plant turned out 10,000 camouflage systems a month, said Dottie Womack, a senior adviser to Saab who was recently president of Saab Barracuda’s Lillington operation.

“Today, I’m not doing any,” Womack said in late May. “I have zero orders.”

“To be honest, I don’t know what is in the future after June,” Womack said.

At the Lillington plant, workers continue to make the Ultra Lightweight Camouflage Net Systems, known as ULSCANS, that the company is built on. But instead of being shipped to the military, they are being stored in a nearby warehouse.

The netting is used to hide trucks, buildings and artillery, among other items, but it is not available to the general public. Saab Barracuda sells it exclusively to the military.

Stockpiling the camouflage would have been unheard of just a few years ago, officials said.

Then, Saab Barracuda shipped its product as quickly as it could make it. The only thing stored in a warehouse was the raw materials - fabrics and pigments - needed to make the netting.

The Lillington plant has been here since at least 1975, with many of the remaining workers being among the longest serving.

Patricia Anderson, a plant vice president, has served 29 years at the site, working under six owners.

Womack started working there in 1976 as a receptionist. She was recently replaced by Brian Keller, an independent consultant who has previously worked with several defense contractors.

Speaking to The Fayetteville Observer last month, Womack talked openly about the plant’s troubles. At the time, 67 employees worked at the plant, although eight of those workers had been sent to Sweden to bolster a different operation.

“We are doing everything we can to keep the jobs we have now,” Womack said.

Those efforts included repeated trips to Washington to lobby on behalf of Saab Barracuda, which is the sole provider of the type of camouflage netting made in Lillington.

Over four to six months, Womack traveled to the nation’s capital a dozen times, she said, meeting with defense and congressional leaders.

“While there seems to be a want to help,” she said, “I haven’t had a lot of success.”

The camouflage netting made at Saab Barracuda is more than a stealthy design. It provides heightened protection against visual, near infrared, thermal infrared and radar detection.

The nets are ubiquitous across Afghanistan and are common sights on Fort Bragg. They were developed by the research and development team at the Lillington plant.

But new orders have all but dried up, and repairs to existing systems are not enough to keep the business afloat.

Attempts to diversify or sell commercial nettings have not taken off, but officials are hopeful that a mobile camouflage system for military vehicles may catch on.

“If that does take off, it will keep us going for a while,” Anderson said.

In the meantime, the company has been hard hit over the past two years with dramatic decreases in production and uncertainty in the defense industry.

Before the latest cost-reduction efforts were announced, the plant was operating only four days a week, with workers clocking in for 10-hour shifts.

But June 10, officials announced that four more employees would be laid off and that the plant would shift to a 32-hour workweek.

Officials also said the plant would extend a planned shutdown for a week, meaning no work will be done at the Lillington plant from Monday to July 11.

Womack said the employees are a small family and have shown resilience over the past two years.

“There are a lot of ties to the military,” she said. “They know what this product does.”

And Womack said she knows how important the jobs are.

“There’s not jobs in Lillington that I know of,” she said, noting that some employees who were laid off a year ago are still seeking work.

If Saab Barracuda closes its Lillington plant, the type of camouflage made there would no longer be available to the U.S. military, officials said.

Current laws and regulations require textiles used by the military to have American origins, so it can’t be supplied from Sweden.

The process used to make the camouflage would not be sold to another company, Womack said. And it would likely take years and millions of dollars for another manufacturer to replicate it.

Officials are now hoping the Department of Defense can save the Lillington plant. The Pentagon is reviewing whether Saab Barracuda could qualify for important government subsidies. A final report is not expected until July.

If the plant closes, it would end nearly 40 years of uninterrupted production.

The plant opened in 1975 and has operated under several names. It also has been bought and sold several times, with past owners including Tracor Aerospace, Marconi Aerospace Defense Systems Inc. and BAE Systems.

By 2001, BAE Systems officials were warning of significant layoffs but were saved by a $13 million order from the Army.

The plant was then sold to Saab Barracuda, which was given a warm welcome to Lillington in May 2002.

The town held a ceremony in the company’s honor and officials spoke with excitement about the security provided to the plant’s then-100 jobs.

Just a few years later, the plant had been expanded twice and business was booming due to the wars.


Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, https://www.fayobserver.com

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