Northrop Grumman Corp. is on final approach toward landing what is expected to be the first new military airplane production contract in Los Angeles County in more than a decade.

Northrop's RQ-4A Global Hawk plane, now entering final testing stages, could lead to the return of other defense contracts to the region, industry observers and Northrop officials said.

The Air Force, which anticipates purchasing 60 of the unmanned reconnaissance planes, recently awarded Northrop an $84 million contract to bring the program into the advanced development stage.

"It's currently more symbolic (but) at some level, symbols are important in terms of being able to project trends or develop a mission for a particular area," said Jon Kutler, president of Quarterdeck Investment Partners Inc., a Century City-based aerospace consulting firm. "I happen to think that 20 years from now, UAVs (unmanned air vehicles) will be in high-volume production. The story is does Los Angeles become a center of UAV production and development?"

So far, five test planes have been assembled at the Air Force's Plant 42 in Palmdale where Northrop leases space with the final two vehicles now under construction, officials said.

Tentative plans call for the company to begin delivering Global Hawks in 2003, initially at a rate of two planes per year, costing $16 million to $20 million each. After a few years, production would be increased to four planes a year.

But Northrop officials will push for a more rapid production at the plant, which they said could produce as many as 10 Global Hawks a year at a lower per-plane cost.

"The big issue here is that UAVs like Global Hawk are finally on the cusp of mainline acceptance by the Pentagon. They've gone from being an R & D; toy to having real-world applications," Kutler said. "We (in Los Angeles) have principally lost the manned-vehicle market. Do we use these (UAVs) to plant the seeds to become the leader of the next generation of fight vehicles?"

Possibly so.

One of the assembled Global Hawk planes is scheduled to take off April 23 from San Diego for a 13,000-mile, nonstop flight to Australia as part of a joint-country evaluation of the vehicle's radar, electro-optical and infrared sensor devices. The plane would then be flown back to the United States June 7.

In addition to its relatively low cost, the Air Force is bullish on the Global Hawk because it removes the danger that pilots now face flying over enemy territory. The plane can travel at elevations of up to 65,000 feet for more than 30 hours at a time.

"We've produced an air vehicle system that is really on the cutting edge of what unmanned systems can do," said Cynthia Curiel, a Northrop spokeswoman. "Up to this point, the Air Force has been extremely supportive. There have been a lot of efforts by them to make sure this program continues. Everything in the program has gone well to date and we anticipate that that will continue. It has a good flight record."

Although President Bush is now restructuring the Pentagon's spending priorities, there has been no indication that the Global Hawk could wind up on the chopping block.

Northrop officials and defense analysts estimate that mass production of the plane would only allow for the creation of about two dozen jobs in Palmdale because some of the parts would be created elsewhere.

But area economists, who saw the decimation of the local defense workforce during the 1990s, say every bit helps.

"One of the significant aspects of this contract is that we have a large pool of very talented defense/aerospace workers in L.A. County, and a production contract allows us to hold on to (some) of that workforce," said David Myers, a consultant to the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. "Some of them are currently not working in defense/aerospace or are under-employed in other aerospace projects. When those production contracts come down the line, we're going to be well positioned to capture that work."

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