To expand overseas, Virginia defense firms eye Africa
By Hugh Lessig | Daily Press, Newport News, Va., (Tribune New Service) | Published: January 21, 2016
KOVA Global, a small Virginia Beach defense contractor, recently finished work on a naval training project that wasn't in the Middle East or the Asia-Pacific, prime areas of focus for the U.S. military.
It was in the Republic of Senegal on the west coast of Africa. That could be just the beginning, said Chris Just, who directs the firm's international training and foreign military sales division.
"Because this was a pilot program," he said, "this opens up the continent to potential business for us."
Gov. Terry McAuliffe is inclined to agree. His administration, which has sought to grow business for Virginia defense contractors hamstrung by Pentagon budget cuts, this week announced an agreement between U.S. Africa Command and the state's marketing arm, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
The signed memo of understanding won't give Virginia companies preferred treatment with the U.S. government, Just said. But it eases coordination between AFRICOM and the state, and it gives Virginia defense contractors an added layer of support.
AFRICOM is one six U.S. regional military commands. It is responsible for all Defense Department operations, exercises and security cooperation on the African continent, its island nations and surrounding waters.
In the case of Senegal, KOVA employees were part of an eight-member team that worked with the Senegalese navy and its relatively new patrol boats. Two other Hampton Roads firms also contributed to the project: Cape Henry Associates, Virginia Beach, and the Phoenix Group of Virginia, Chesapeake.
In that region, "so many countries are developing their military and law enforcement from a relatively low level, the U.S. can really provide tremendous capability for growth," Just said.
The state, through its economic partnership, established a relationship with AFRICOM two years ago, according to a news release. It participated in AFRICOM's industry event in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2014. Last June, more than 70 Virginia companies attended an AFRICOM-sponsored forum.
The AFRICOM relationship is part of the state's Going Global Defense Initiative, which aims to compensate for the drop in U.S. military spending by boosting overseas opportunities for Virginia defense firms.
Tighter military spending is a key concern for Hampton Roads. In 2011, with defense spending on the upswing, 44.9 percent of regional economic activity was tied to defense funding, according to the 2015 State of the Region Report from Old Dominion University.
In 2014, it was an estimated 39.3 percent.
"Thus we have diversified our economy, but not as the result of strong private sector growth," the report states. "Instead, the reason is declining (defense) spending."
The type of training provided by KOVA Global is a case in point. The private sector has been able to provide overseas training for U.S. partner nations due to Navy downsizing.
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