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What are Lockheed Martin's chances for Air Force contract?

Aerospace
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Since tracking began in 2006, Lockheed Martin Corp. has been on the winning end of 895 contracts with the U.S. Air Force.

The one they have their eye on now will benefit the Upstate the most.

Lockheed Martin is battling several aircraft consortiums for a contract worth between $10 billion and $11 billion, according to Greenville operations chief Don Erickson, to produce the next fighter-trainer aircraft for the military.

The development of the T-50A aircraft is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries to replace the T-38, which has been used by the Air Force to train pilots for more than 50 years.

Twists and turns

Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense Initiatives Group for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said this particular contract has had some interesting twists and turns, keeping some prospective bidders unsure of whether they should bid.

“It is kind of an interesting case, because more so than what is usually true, the Air Force has been evolving and really realizing what they want,” Hunter said. “They may refine it over time, but in this case, it is far from minor.”

Hunter said the Air Force left off the need for a supersonic trainer, which opened the door to new bidders because of lower production costs, but that was revised and many of those bidders backed out.

That also led to change with Air Force bidding stalwarts like Northrup Grumman and Boeing. Northrup and BAE Systems Inc. originally were to collaborate and produce a variation of the Northrup Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, but Northrup abandoned the partnership after the Air Force added the supersonic stipulation.

Boeing, elected to partner with Swedish company Saab Group to create a “clean sheet” design. The Boeing/Saab and Northrup plans are both designs that have not been produced. Lockheed Martin, on the other hand, along with Textron’s Scorpion — another potential competitor — are both offering redesigns of aircraft already in production.

“Already proven”

It is that already proven philosophy that Lockheed Martin officials are hanging their hats on. At a recent dedication of the T-50A hangar in Greenville, Rob Weiss, executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program, or Skunk Works, said the company is committed to the project and that the partnership “will be on schedule and provide the lowest cost option.”

“We will be ready day one of the contract award to produce the T-50A,” Weiss said. “We are ready now, and we are all in on the T-50A.”

Because the Air Force is looking to phase out its aging T-38, Hunter said that readiness could be an advantage. The current fighter-trainer does not have the capability to fully train pilots for service in the new F-35 Lightning and F-22 Raptor — both produced by Lockheed Martin, according to Weiss. Hunter said it means pilots have to move from the T-38 to other training options, which takes time and costs money.

That is where the prospective Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace proposal could have an advantage above the other bidders.

“It certainly can be a positive if it is something that can be put into production. The customer can get what it wants quicker and that usually leads to cheaper,” Hunter said. “Another advantage is risk and something that is already able to be produced. There is less risk, but for the clean-sheet designs from Boeing and Northrup, there may be a risk built in.”

However, he said he would not be surprised to see the Air Force build in enough time for all major bidders to develop from the ground up, which would negate the advantage of using an aircraft model that’s already in production.

Benefits to Greenville and the Upstate

If Lockheed Martin garners the contract, the benefits to Greenville could be large, including adding 200 jobs to the company’s current workforce of 600.

Erickson said that additional workforce could come from existing Lockheed Martin employees and from sources such as aviation training students at Greenville Technical College, for which Lockheed Martin has funded a $25,000 scholarship. Choosing Greenville as the final assembly and check out for the T-50A was because of the infrastructure put in place at the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center, Erickson said.

Dick Wilkerson, chairman of the Greenville Area Development Corp., said the contract work coming to Greenville could mean an even larger surge of other aviation business coming to the Upstate.

“I think aviation has always been on the rise here, maybe just not as prominent as automotive,” Wilkerson said. “You can achieve a critical mass of achievement, and this would do that here for aviation and lead to other possibilities.”

Reach Matthew Clark at 864-720-1222.

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