New fighter to drop big bucks here

Northrop radar plant aims to get $1 billion in initial contract

Billions more expected

Joint Strike Fighter likely to benefit local economy until 2040

November 04, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Wings from Texas will make the Pentagon's new jet fighter fly.

A fan from Indiana will make it hover.

An engine from Connecticut will take it supersonic, while a tail from England keeps it straight.

And just south of Baltimore, inside the off-ramp industrial campus of Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Electronic Systems sector, a team of engineers will teach the Joint Strike Fighter how to see and hear.

The former Westinghouse plant in Linthicum is already one of the nation's leading designers and manufacturers of airborne military electronics.

But by winning a coveted role in development of the Joint Strike Fighter - possibly the largest military contract ever - the local division gains money and stature that should guarantee it a prominent role in the ever-shrinking defense industry for decades to come, analysts say.

That one fleet of aircraft, expected to enter service in 2008 and stay in production until 2040, will mean billions of dollars in business for the Baltimore region.

The program will likely keep 500 or more workers employed, and secure the region's standing as the top manufacturer of airborne radar in the country.

"You can't overstate the importance of the Joint Strike Fighter contract for Northrop Grumman, particularly its operation in Baltimore," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. "It creates a huge amount of business for them. And they needed it, because a lot of their other business will go away to make room for the JSF."

The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy and Air Force, want 3,002 of the new airplanes. And the vast bounty from that $200 billion fleet of fighter planes won't all go to Lockheed Martin Corp., which won the right last month to build the multiservice jets. Dozens of companies will share the work.

Final assembly of the plane, to be designated the F-35, will take place at Lockheed Martin's aeronautics plant in Fort Worth, Texas. But the components will be gathered from throughout the country and the world.

Pratt & Whitney will make the engines in Middletown, Conn. BAE Systems, formerly British Aerospace, will make the aft fuselage in Samlesbury, England. Rolls-Royce Corp. in Indianapolis will build the fighter's "lift fan" for vertical landings.

Northrop Grumman will produce roughly 17 percent of the new airplane, including the center fuselage and weapons bay, which will be manufactured at the company's military aircraft plant in El Segundo, Calif.

The Linthicum plant will build or design several of the plane's electronic components, including key elements of its targeting and missile detection systems.

The electronic systems that aren't built in the Baltimore area will eventually be shipped here and installed in Northrop Grumman's "flying test bed," a modified British Aerospace jet parked near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, for testing and evaluation over the Chesapeake Bay.

Only two Joint Strike Fighter prototypes have been built, both of them early demonstrator models designed only to test their ability to fly. The next phase of the plane's development calls for construction of 22 additional aircraft, with more advanced capabilities. On Oct. 26, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin $19 billion to build those planes.

According to company executives and analysts, Northrop Grumman's Linthicum division, a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin, could get as much as $1 billion for work in this next phase of development.

Like most defense contractors, Northrop Grumman doesn't categorize its workers according to the systems they design or build. Nor does it report revenue and profits for individual product lines.

But the Joint Strike Fighter is expected to be the most expensive aircraft program ever undertaken by the Pentagon, and may be the last manned combat plane the country will build. It is designed to replace several older fighters, including the F-16 - a key source of Northrop Grumman's current electronics business.

"A program like the JSF, one of that size, might employ 400, 500, 600 people at one time" at the Linthicum plant, said Robert P. Iorizzo, president of Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems. "And the systems that we'll be producing are the latest and greatest. Most of the business is still downstream, but this is a big deal for us. It's a big deal for the whole region."

The plant's main contribution to the Joint Strike Fighter will be its radar. Northrop Grumman produces nearly 60 percent of the Pentagon's airborne radar systems, according to a recent study - most of them in Linthicum.

The plant already has designed and built an advanced radar for the Joint Strike Fighter, using smaller and lighter components, fewer parts and less complicated manufacturing techniques than typical models. It will focus now on verifying the system's capabilities and preparing it for production.

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