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Dogfight Over Tanker Contract

A330 tanker transport
An A330 tanker transport, the aircraft Northrop Grumman would modify for the Air Force, refuels two F/A-18 fighters.

A bitter battle over who will buildthe next generation of Air Force aerial refueling aircraft could have major consequences for Brevard County, with more than 1,600 potential new jobs hinging on whether Boeing or Northrop Grumman comes out on top.

The companies are competing for a $35-billion contract to build 179 tanker airplanes that would replace the Eisenhower-era KC-135 aircraft in service today. Both Boeing, the nation's second-largest defense contractor, and Northrop Grumman, the third-largest, have won one round of bidding, but both bids were ultimately rescinded — Boeing's amid corruption allegations over a lease plan, and Northrop Grumman's over whether the Air Force's technical specifications for the new plane were unfair. Both companies are working on a new round of proposals for a contract expected to be awarded by the middle of this year.

With additional aircraft to be ordered in the future, the contract could be worth $100 billion. While Boeing would handle most of the work in Washington state and Kansas, Northrop Grumman would create a new hub of aerospace activity in the Southeast — eventually adding 1,600 to 1,700 direct and indirect jobs to the company's Melbourne operations.

Northrop Grumman, teaming with the North America division of United Kingdom-based EADS, would assemble a KC-45, a modified A330 Airbus built in the U.S. and outfitted with tanks and other refueling-related gear. More than 400 similar aircraft are in use or on order by the military in Australia, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Boeing's proposal is for a variation of its KC-767.

The jobs created as a result of the new work, says Bill Welser, a 35-year Air Force veteran who is vice president of business development for Northrop's Air Mobility Systems, "could stretch from 20 to 40 years into the future. You're talking about hundreds of highly technical, high-paying jobs this tanker would bring to Brevard County."

The current Brevard-based tanker workforce of 100 would swell to 500 during the design and development phase, with hundreds more hired later to work on modifications to the aircraft, including systems, vehicle production, software, hardware and aerospace engineers.

A Northrop win could be a boon for other parts of Florida, too. Plans call for creating an assembly plant in Alabama, where 4,800 new jobs would attract workers from the Florida Panhandle, and for bringing in at least nine Florida suppliers that would support almost 4,000 additional employees, Welser says.

The competition for the contract has turned bitter, with both companies dealing with contentions that some of their manufacturing is conducted outside the United States — especially Northrop Grumman with its EADS connection. Some analysts say neither will give up and that the only solution may be to split the contract between them.

Northrop Grumman is beating the bushes for more talent in Brevard and other parts of Florida just in case, confident the company will win the next round and pick up some of the aerospace workers slated to lose their jobs when NASA's space shuttle program ends.

"When you look at the high-tech aerospace industry in Florida, the space center has been a real magnet to attract people and talent," says Jim Stratford, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman's Melbourne operations. "It has expanded beyond that. The technology sector just in Brevard County is much more than the space center. The companies that are here, like Northrop and Harris and Rockwell and others, keep a great focus on the high-tech fields that have been spun off from the space industry.

"Anytime we get great programs like the tanker into Florida and help keep our workforce employed and attract more high-tech talent," says Stratford, "it's a real plus for the state."

Go to LinksLinks: Watch Northrop Grumman's KC-45 Tanker refueling aircraft promotional video