Pentagon poised to pick winner of jet fighter pact

Lockheed has edge over Boeing for award, analysts say

Joint Strike Fighter

October 25, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The airplanes are in "warm storage," destined for either more testing or an early grave. The employees are waiting, mostly. The $2 billion down payment, spent.

Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. expect to learn tomorrow which of the defense industry giants will build the Joint Strike Fighter - perhaps the last manned jet fighter that the United States will ever build.

The winner will hire thousands of workers, build 3,000 or more airplanes and reap at least $200 billion in sales. Foreign sales could push the figures even higher.

The loser will finish building the aircraft it makes today, then might never make another fighter plane.

"The industry has never seen anything like this," said David S. Steigman, a defense analyst for the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. "An aircraft has never been built this way. And a contract has never been worth this much."

The Joint Strike Fighter is the most valuable military contract ever awarded, and Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin is widely considered the favorite to win it. Its proposed aircraft is more conventional than Boeing's, and it has more experience building planes for the Air Force - the plane's largest customer.

Some analysts say Lockheed Martin's victory is so widely expected that Wall Street has already figured it into the company's stock price.

"It's more than just a suspicion, it's a firm belief - and it's all over the place," said Paul H. Nisbet, an aerospace analyst for JSA Research Inc.

Boeing executives bristle at the suggestion. Chairman Phil Condit called the competition "dead level" in a conference call last week. The Pentagon is not expected to notify either corporation of its decision until minutes before the public announcement tomorrow.

But regardless of which company might win, the contract is so large, and its potential consequences so vast, that some industry watchers don't believe that the Joint Strike Fighter can ever be built as planned.

Missouri Sen. Christopher A. Bond wants Congress to guarantee that both companies will build the plane, saying the alternative would drive the loser out of the business and weaken the nation's industrial base.

And critics such as Nisbet say the Joint Strike Fighter won't survive because it is being asked to do the unthinkable - satisfy the Air Force and the Navy at the same time. The Air Force's F-16 and the Navy's F-18 were originally conceived as one aircraft, he noted. But each service wants its own plane.

"The single-design, multipurpose concept hasn't worked before," Nisbet said. "The lawyers and dentists in Congress figure they understand this stuff better than the engineers."

Boeing and Lockheed Martin have each designed, built and test-flown their own proposed Joint Strike Fighter and pitched it to the Pentagon as the nation's fighter jet of the future.

Both companies got the same mandate: Build a sophisticated but inexpensive fighter plane that can simultaneously suit the needs of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

The plane must be superior to the Air Force's aging F-16, while also capable of vertical takeoff and aircraft-carrier landings with only modest manufacturing changes.

After more than five years of design work and $2 billion in contracts, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have come up with two vastly different airplanes.

An obvious difference is appearance. Boeing's entry has a swollen, delta-wing look, while Lockheed Martin's is more conservative.

But a more significant variation is the engine, and how the companies chose to achieve the vertical takeoff capability demanded by the Marines and the services in Great Britain. Lockheed Martin uses a shaft-driven lift fan, and Boeing uses rotating nozzles to redirect the engine's thrust.

The Lockheed Martin design is considered more mechanically demanding, the Boeing design less aerodynamic.

While both airplanes are cheered for their capabilities, Lockheed Martin's version is viewed as more conservative - something the Air Force generally favors.

When the service selected Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor, it rejected Northrop Corp.'s F-23 - a plane that was considered potentially superior, though less of a sure thing.

"I would go with Lockheed," Steigman said. "The Air Force likes Lockheed jets, and the Air Force is the one buying most of the airplanes."

The Air Force is expected to buy 1,763 Joint Strike Fighters, with the other services purchasing 1,239. Foreign countries might then buy another 3,000 aircraft, by some estimates, making the contract ultimately worth more than $300 billion.

Both companies are organizing live video feeds of tomorrow's announcement to workers on their assembly lines. Each employs about 400 workers dedicated to the Joint Strike Fighter.

Lockheed Martin would hire 4,000 new employees if it wins the award, most of them at its assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas, company spokesman John Kent said.

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