Lockheed lands pact for Joint Strike Fighter

Boeing fails to land Pentagon contract

Maryland to prosper

Northrop sector to benefit

October 27, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The Pentagon selected Lockheed Martin Corp. to design and build the nation's newest fighter jet yesterday, handing Maryland's defense giant what could be the largest and most lucrative government contract ever awarded.

The Joint Strike Fighter, to be built on Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth, Texas, assembly line, could reap $200 billion in sales for the Bethesda-based corporation - and nearly double that amount when foreign sales are considered.

The company expects to hire 2,500 new employees, eventually dedicating 11,000 or more workers solely to making the Pentagon's fighter jet of the future.

After the announcement, Vance Coffman, chairman and CEO of Lockheed, said: "We intend to honor that trust by building a truly remarkable, capable and affordable next-generation multi-role fighter on schedule and on cost."

By rejecting Boeing Co., military leaders also cleared a spot in history for Lockheed Martin as perhaps the last surviving manufacturer of American fighter planes. Within a decade, the Joint Strike Fighter could be the only fighter jet in production in the United States, and some expect it to be the last manned fighter the country will make.

"The Joint Strike Fighter really was critical to Lockheed Martin's future in the military aircraft business," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute. "Without a win on that huge program, Lockheed would have been greatly diminished after the end of this decade."

The Joint Strike Fighter - which will be designated the F-35 - is designed to replace an array of older fighters, including the Air Force's F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt, the Marine Corps' AV-8 Harrier and the Navy's old A-6 Intruder.

The award to Lockheed Martin was also a boon for Northrop Grumman Corp. and its Electronic Systems sector in Linthicum, which will manufacture the plane's radar and share in production of its infrared missile warning and targeting systems. Airborne radar is the division's main business, and the Joint Strike Fighter could become the only major source of such work as F-16 and F-22 production declines in the coming years.

The plane could ultimately keep more than 500 engineers and other workers employed in the Baltimore area, company officials said.

"This is a huge win for us, and it means a lot for Baltimore," said Robert P. Iorizzo, president of Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems. "There's a lot of business for us in the airplane."

Three versions of jet

The Joint Strike Fighter is actually three different aircraft, each tailored for a different branch of the military.

An Air Force version will use a conventional runway, a Navy version with larger wings will operate from aircraft carriers, and a third design for the Marine Corps and the British Royal Navy and Air Force will land vertically and be capable of short takeoffs. While the planes have different characteristics, they are largely similar and can be built from the same assembly line - a first for the Pentagon.

They cost between $40 million and $50 million apiece at today's rates, depending on the design.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing both designed and built demonstration planes to meet the Department of Defense's request for a new multipurpose, supersonic fighter. And both companies' planes passed all the Pentagon's tests and met all its requirements.

But Lockheed Martin had long been considered the favorite. While both companies have long histories building fighter planes, Boeing - primarily a commercial jet maker - had been considered more likely to weather the loss. And Lockheed has more experience building planes for the Air Force, which wants more than 1,700 of the stealthy fighters.

Lockheed `clear winner'

Pentagon officials declined to detail their reasoning for selecting the Lockheed Martin design, saying they wanted to discuss the decision with the two companies first. But Air Force Secretary James G. Roche said the Lockheed Martin fighter "emerged continuously as the clear winner, based on strengths, weaknesses and the degrees of risk involved."

Boeing's proposed entry has also been criticized, albeit jokingly, for its appearance, particularly its swollen shape and fish-like air intake below the nose. "It is particularly ugly," said Paul H. Nisbet, an aerospace analyst for JSA Research Inc. "But like Boeing always says, `We're going to war, not to the dance.'"

Roche said: "There was no beauty contest."

If the plane's development proceeds as planned, the Joint Strike Fighter will represent the largest federal contract ever awarded - both in cost to the government and potential sales to Lockheed Martin. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy and Air Force, want a combined fleet of 3,002 planes. Foreign countries could order another 3,000 planes, by some estimates.

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