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Published: Tuesday, 2/8/2011

Jet plant has backlog of work

With U.S. unable to get F-35 ready, F/A-18 orders flood factory

LOS ANGELES TIMES

Two finished F/A-18 Super Hornets at Northrop Grumman Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., await shipment to Boeing Corp. for cockpit assembly. The F/A-18 had been slated for replacement. Two finished F/A-18 Super Hornets at Northrop Grumman Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., await shipment to Boeing Corp. for cockpit assembly. The F/A-18 had been slated for replacement.
ANNE CUSACK / McT Enlarge
LOS ANGELES -- The ear-piercing, machine-gunlike blasts of an air hammer are welcome to workers on the Northrop Grumman Corp. assembly line in El Segundo, Calif.

It means they're churning out fuselage sections for the supersonic F/A-18 fighter jet, a fixture on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers since 1983 and in demand worldwide. Once slated for replacement, the jet is in high demand from the Pentagon and foreign governments looking to upgrade arsenals. The plant has a backlog that will take until at least 2014 to finish.

The boon for Northrop's 1,100 workers in El Segundo -- and more than 700 suppliers in California -- is the by-product of a Pentagon embarrassment. It had hoped to phase out the F/A-18 and fly the radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by now.

But production on the next-generation jet is years behind schedule and billions over budget. Just last month, frustrated Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the F-35, to be used jointly by the Navy, Marines, and Air Force, is not ready; so he ordered 41 more F/A-18s for the Navy.

This is good news for workers such as Martin Martinez, 46. "We've been blessed for jobs in this plant for the last year or so," he said. "We joke that there's a lucky charm buried around here somewhere."

Production lines here should hum for years, said Loren Thompson, an analyst for the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank.

The F/A-18 first saw action in the 1980s, but proved itself in the 1990s in Operation Desert Storm, when it shot down Iraqi air force fighters and took out key enemy strongholds with laser-guided bombs -- sometimes on the same mission. Now, the aircraft is common in Afghanistan.

The criticism of the F/A-18 is that it's not stealthy enough, Mr. Thompson said. Depending on variation, prices range from around $30 million to $70 million.



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