The Pentagon is ready to spend billions to build a new stealth bomber in the Antelope Valley. Two teams of defense contractors, Boeing Co. and Northrop-Grumman, are vying to win the coveted contract to return large-scale aerospace manufacturing to Los Angeles County. Boeing opted to team up with Lockheed-Martin—the latter being the Pentagon’s most frequent contractor as well as Boeing’s primary sub-contractor—in bidding against Northrop to build the world’s latest and fastest high-tech bomber. The winner is expected to be announced this spring.

The top-secret project, at a price ranging somewhere between a low of $550 million to a high of $2 billion per plane, comes at a time when there is ongoing debate on Capitol Hill over whether a new warplane is crucial to national security or will it be a colossal budget-busting waste of taxpayer funds. Just before leaving office, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he believed the new supersonic bomber is an appropriate step in maintaining American air superiority, noting “I think the Long-Range Air Strike Bomber is absolutely essential to keep our deterrent edge.” The contest for the bomber is so secret, analysts outside the Pentagon have no idea who will win. For that matter, nobody knows what the plane will look like. Both Boeing and Northrop have declined to answer any questions about the competition.

Elected officials locally believe the bomber contract can mean only one thing: Jobs.

“[Defense contractors] have indicated that they can’t talk about this,” said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford, “but we can and the prospects look very good for the Antelope Valley.”

A similar response came from Lancaster Mayor R. Parris who told the press this month that, “It would be the answer to all our prayers.” If the go-ahead takes place in the next few months, the program may create as many as 1,500 jobs at Air Force Plant 42 at Edwards Air Force Base.

New workers, historic jobs

If the Boeing-Lockheed partnership wins, the two firms have said that Lockheed would design the plane in Palmdale and Boeing would likely build it in St. Louis—with significant pieces subcontracted around the nation, including the Antelope Valley. The announcement could mean 700 new subcontractor and support-service jobs emanating from both Palmdale and Lancaster.

Lancaster unemployment figures, now standing at 10.7 percent (much higher than the state rate of 7.0 percent), could come down considerably, says Parris, if the plan goes through. Both cities were hit hard when aeronautics manufacturing declined in the region during the past two decades and were further weakened when the Great Recession began in 2008.

Details about the new bomber are closely guarded. But military officials have vowed to limit the price tag to $550 million each; the Pentagon included $1.2 billion for the bomber in the public portion of its 2015 budget. The Air Force has reportedly ordered 100 new warplanes with officials declaring that each could eventually be outfitted to carry nuclear weapons; and one day, they contend, the bombers could be outfitted to fly as a drone.

The new heavy-payload-plane plane is said to be so “stealthy” that it can evade even the most sophisticated radar. It will effectively replace the Air Force’s aging B-1 and B-52 long-range strike bombers, and is expected to augment the B-2 Spirit—the latter often seen ushering in the Tournament of Roses Parade—which was manufactured by Northrop-Grumman beginning in 1997 at a price of $737 million each. Total procurement for manufacturing (i.e. engineering, spare parts, retrofitting, software updating, etc.) eventually increased the price of the B-2 Spirit to about $989 million per plane. The government’s last bomber program, the same B-2 Spirit, started out with a requirement for 132 planes. Northrop ended up building only 21 as the cost soared to $2 billion each.

How badly does Northrop-Grumman want this new contract? In a practically unheard of move for a defense contractor, Northrop paid for an ad touting its high-tech aircraft during this year’s Super Bowl, and again during the broadcast of the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary earlier this month. The commercial showed all of the famous warplanes built by the former Hawthorne-based manufacturer (flying wings like the YB-35 prototype dating back to World War II, and the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, and the B-2 Spirit) and it ended with a shot of a plane veiled in a sheet. Last summer lobbyists for Boeing-Lockheed persuaded Sacramento legislators to pass a bill giving the company hundreds of millions of dollars in potential tax credits if it did extensive work on the new stealth bomber in California, specifically in the Antelope Valley. Northrop naturally complained and was rewarded with its own series of tax breaks provided they agree to the same stipulations.

The choice of contractor may well redefine the so-called “military-industrial complex,” contends Richard Aboulafia, a noted aerospace analyst. “Whatever the outcome, this move could precipitate an aggressive move by Boeing (the number two defense contractor) to acquire the aircraft unit of Northrop-Grumman which is third on the list. The result could be the world’s largest aeronautics manufacturer by far.”

Defense budget grows

For about a decade, the Pentagon had touted the development of a new series of stealth fighters, bombers and drones called the “fifth generation” of fighter planes. Now they’re pouring in even more money for its “sixth generation” of military machinery including a new Navy carrier-based stealth drone. Ashton Carter, new secretary of defense, said this month that he would like to boost the defense budget while, somehow, driving down the costs of new weapons. “We want to make sure new technologies are delivered to troops more quickly and more efficiently,” he told Reuters. Carter is a former chief weapons advisor for the Pentagon. The Pentagon’s new budget for 2016 is expected to exceed $585 billion. That amount effectively reverses a five-year decline in defense spending and would allot about $38 billion more in the 2015 budget, with an additional $51 billion allocated for expanding the U.S. military campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

While no airplane is totally invisible to radar, stealth aircraft can prevent conventional radar from detecting or tracking the aircraft effectively, thereby reducing the odds of a successful attack. Anti-aircraft operations around the world have gotten better during the past two decades and the nation’s 20 B-2s still in operation are now considered vulnerable to attack. The B-2 was first used in combat to drop bombs on Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999, and saw continued use during the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The B-2 bomber was also used briefly during the 2011 Libyan uprising. Only one has been lost, in 2008, when it crashed just after takeoff but not before the crew ejected safely.

The clear skies and open spaces of the Antelope Valley have made this area a favorite for building and testing experimental military planes. For decades, Northrop, Lockheed, Boeing and other aeronautics firms have leased hangars at the Plant 42 complex where each company shares a runway with the Air Force and other contractors. Northrop developed and built the first stealth bomber, the B-2, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union in hopes of penetrating the heart of the latter’s vast defense system. Lockheed, for its part, has developed a long line of “stealthy” military planes inside its top secret “Skunk Works” facility that gave birth to the U-2 spy plane and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. The postwar peak in aerospace employment in Southern California came after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

In 1987, about 10 percent of the nation’s aerospace jobs—some 200,000 workers—were in Palmdale, Lancaster and the rest of Los Angeles County, according to a county economic development study conducted in 1990. The Space Shuttle was once built in Palmdale after its birthplace in Downey. When the Cold War ended, defense contractors began “buying out” or laying off workers by the thousands. The county’s aerospace employment fell by nearly 70 percent—from 189,000 in 1990 to just 59,200 in 2011—with most of that decline occurring before 2000. Automatic federal budget cuts, known as “sequestration” on Capitol Hill, were imposed by law in 2011 and further dampened the hopes of returning the aerospace industry in full to Southern California. The new contract may change that, and Ledford is all for it.

Palmdale: ‘An aerospace community’

“We’re an aerospace community,” he said, “and we’re certainly not looking to get less. We want more.”

Parris said the relatively high-paying aerospace jobs have the potential to create many times the number of new positions throughout the Antelope Valley, including restaurants, retail stores and manufacturing companies, which for decades worked in partnership with aeronautics workers. “It would be so great to see it all come back,” Parris noted.

Northrop-Grumman remains in charge of upgrades to the current B-2 Spirit. In June 2014, the company won a five-year contract from the Air Force valued at up to $9.9 billion to modernize and support the warplane, focusing mainly on software maintenance and regular scheduled upkeep. The contract will run through May 2019 and includes an option that would extend it through 2024. As well, Northrop continues work in Palmdale on a $171 million system development contract for the first increment of a new high-frequency satellite communications system for the B-2 Sprit.

“If Boeing loses out in the bidding, it won’t be building combat aircraft after 2018 unless it buys Northrop’s aircraft unit,” said Aboulafia who is also an analyst with the Teal Group, a group of experts who provide information on the aerospace and defense industries. “If Boeing wins, Northrop will not be a combat-aircraft prime (provider), and its investors may decide the company is more valuable broken-up—in which case Boeing would be the likely buyer for the aircraft unit anyway.” Aboulafia said Boeing, riding record-high share prices and sitting on $13 billion in reserve cash—eight times that of Lockheed—is “unlikely” to accept a losing position.

Boeing has a history of acquiring aeronautics firms. In the late 1980s after the completion of Rockwell International’s Space Shuttle contract, the Seattle-based giant merged and eventually purchased the majority of Rockwell stock. Then in November 1996, the Pentagon eliminated McDonnell-Douglas from the Joint Strike Fight competition, leaving the old Santa Monica-based company with dim prospects. Boeing was eager to balance its commercial unit with a defense acquisition and announced one month later that it would buy McDonnell-Douglas for $13.3 billion in stock.

Los Angeles County during the past 15 years has secured more than $150 billion in defense contracts (individually about 190,000 contracts) ranging from just $1,200 for A & B Aerospace Inc. to more than $335 million for Aardvark in Azusa. Nearby firms in Lancaster, Palmdale, Canyon Country, Santa Clarita, Quartz Hill and Newhall have combined during the past 15 years to secure just more than 1 million in defense sub-contracts.

Known as the “Aerospace Capital of the World,” Palmdale is host to some of the nation’s largest and most successful aerospace companies. Besides Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman and the Boeing Co., Palmdale is also home to the AERO Institute, which has facilitated the aerospace industry by providing educational opportunities in science, engineering and technical skills through several colleges and universities, including Antelope Valley College.