B-2 Stealth Bomber

A B-2 stealth bomber is parked at a Northrop Grumman facility in the Antelope Valley. Northrop could build parts of the company’s proposed Long-Range Strike Bomber in Palmdale. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

By Melody Petersen
February 8, 2015

The Pentagon is poised to spend billions to build a new stealth bomber, a top secret project that could bring hundreds of jobs to the wind-swept desert communities in Los Angeles County’s northern reaches.

Two teams of defense contractors are now battling to win what would be one of the most expensive contracts in Pentagon history. As the lobbying intensifies, the coming decision to pick a winner as soon as this spring has set off a debate over whether the new warplane is crucial to national security or a colossal budget-busting waste.

“You’re talking about a $2-billion airplane by the time they build it,” said Thomas Christie, who worked as a top analyst inside the Pentagon for more than three decades before retiring. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last month, “I think the Long-Range Strike Bomber is absolutely essential to keep our deterrent edge.”

For elected officials across the country, however, the bomber contract means one thing: jobs. And as the teams led by weapons giants Northrop Grumman and Boeing Co. privately lobby lawmakers for their support, the legislators want to know what their state will get out of the deal.

In an effort to snag jobs for California, Sacramento lawmakers passed bills last summer giving companies hundreds of millions of dollars in potential tax breaks.

In few places can the lure of a new bomber be felt more profoundly than in Palmdale, where the competing teams of contractors have each told local officials that they would perform significant work at their leased facilities at the sprawling expanse of scrub brush known as Air Force Plant 42.

The new jobs would help revive the Antelope Valley’s communities, which have long played an outsized role in military aerospace history and are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.

“They’ve indicated that they can’t talk about this,” Palmdale Mayor James Ledford said of the defense companies bidding on the contract. “But we can.” And the prospects look good.

Northrop executives have said they would build substantial parts of the company’s proposed bomber in Palmdale, he said, creating an estimated 1,500 jobs.

Rival Lockheed Martin Corp. — the primary subcontractor to Boeing Co. — said it also planned to work on the new warplane in Palmdale, Ledford said. That plan could mean adding 700 jobs, he said.

“It would be the answer to all our prayers,” said R. Rex Parris, mayor of neighboring Lancaster, which has a 10.7% unemployment rate, far higher than the state average.

The decision is in the hands of the Air Force, which says it needs a heavy-payload-carrying bomber that is so stealthy it can evade the most sophisticated enemy radar.

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