The region’s aerospace sector got a major economic boost Tuesday when the U. S. Air Force awarded an $80-billion contract for a new long-range stealth bomber to Northrop Grumman Corp., a deal that will bring about 6,500 jobs to the Antelope Valley when the planes are built at the storied Plant 42 in Palmdale.
The Air Force selected Northrop, which built the B-2 stealth bomber, over a team of Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp.
“The Air Force has made the right decision for our nation’s security,” Wes Bush, Northrop Grumman’s chairman, chief executive officer and president, said in a statement. “As the company that developed and delivered the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, we look forward to providing the Air Force with a highly capable and affordable next-generation long-range strike bomber. Our team has the resources in place to execute this important program, and we’re ready to get to work.”
Details on the locations where all of the work will be done will be forthcoming from Northrop, said U.S. Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
Palmdale is on tap for a major part because that is where the plane will be assembled, he said.
“I’m absolutely certain it will be built (in Palmdale),” Knight said of the new plane. “There was testimony (to that) in the state legislature ... and there will be a large number of jobs coming to Palmdale.”
Reports Tuesday put the figure at 6,500 jobs, and Knight said he’s comfortable with that number.
The announcement signals a reversal of fortune for Palmdale, a city hit hard by the Great Recession.
“It’s a great day,” said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford. “I think this is going to spell great things for the city, which has an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent. It’s going to help that greatly. The Antelope Valley is the right place for this project.”
Work on the new plane would also benefit subcontractors in the region, which has been hard hit by defense spending cuts, Knight said.
“The (Antelope Valley) is space central,” Knight said. “When we get a ramp-up like this, it’s great for the community. These are $90,000 jobs — they can buy you a house, a car or send your kid to college,” said Knight, adding that he would meet with Northrop officials sometime next week.
“We’re happy. They’ve made the announcement, and now we can get moving,” he said. “This is going to be a decadeslong thing of testing and building it. This is just the start of a very long race.”
The long-range strike bomber will be one of the Pentagon’s biggest weapons systems of the next decade, with a price tag of about $80 billion if all 100 aircraft sought by defense officials are built.
Joining the B-2 bomber known for its radar-evading “flying wing” design, the new plane is due to enter service in the mid-2020s as the successor to the 30-year-old B-1 and the Eisenhower-era B-52.
The Air Force owns the sprawling Plant 42 complex in Palmdale where many of the nation’s high-tech military planes have been assembled.
While a member of the state Senate, Knight helped push through a series of bills making it easier for all bidders on the new bomber contract known as the U.S. Air Force Strategic Aircraft proposal to do work in California.
The legislation created a tax credit program that will average between $25 million and $31 million a year over the next 15 years for aerospace manufacturers and their subcontractors.
California had been at a disadvantage because other states did not tax manufacturers on their equipment purchases or had exemption programs.
The aerospace sector had been lobbying for such a program here for about 10 years.
“That sales tax exemption will go a long way in securing this contract and others down the road,” said Gino DiCaro, vice president of communications for the California Manufacturers & Technology Association.
Robert Kleinhenz, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said despite the loss of aerospace jobs over the past few years, the county sill accounts for about 10 percent of the sector’s U.S. employment.
“It continues to be a center for the aerospace industry,” he said. “In an area such as Southern California we have the entire web of aerospace activity, from design and engineering all the way to production. I think there would be a strong ripple effect through the economy if this project lands here,” he said before the announcement.
“This is a tremendous win for Northrop Grumman, the city of Palmdale, the county of Los Angeles and the state of California,” Bill Allen, LAEDC president and CEO, said in a statement. “It is also a testament to the unparalleled quality and productivity of the aerospace workforce in L.A. County and our region’s ability to compete successfully to attract thousands of well-paying jobs for our residents for many years to come.”
There are also feeder programs that focus on training aerospace workers at area high schools and Antelope Valley Community College.
For example, the fledgling Palmdale Aerospace Academy, which opened in 2013, is a popular education destination in what could rightly be called Aerospace Valley.
The charter school, which is focused on science, technology, engineering and math skills, opened with 720 students in grades seven through 10. The school now has 1,080 students in grades seven through 12.
And the community college offers an Airframe Manufacturing Technology program, which is designed to meet the need in the aerospace industry for multiskilled workers “who understand, perform and serve as first-line leads in the major processes of manufacturing the structural components of an aircraft for civilian and military specifications,” according to the school’s website.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald W. Shepperd, who heads the Shepperd Group Inc., a defense and strategic planning consultancy firm, said a new bomber is desperately needed.
“We’ve been at war for 15 years, and our people and our airplanes are worn out and need to be replaced,” he said. “We’re trying to modernize, but at the same we’re playing catchup on stuff that is worn out. That makes it tough with our financial situation in the U.S.”
— Staff writer Kevin Smith contributed to this report.