Northrop Grumman Corp.’s development of an unmanned aircraft could deliver an economic shot to Los Angeles County’s declining aerospace industry.

The X-47B, which was assembled at Northrop’s Palmdale facility, has the potential to become a critical component in the Navy’s aerial arsenal. It was put through its paces in three successful flight tests since early February at Edwards Air Force Base.

David Walter, Palmdale’s economic development manager, said the program could have a significant impact on the local economy.

“We view this program as very positive for the community and the Antelope Valley,” Walter said. “This is a fast-growing sector for the Navy and other military branches, and it could be transitioned to other areas like NASA.”

Tighe Parmenter, a business development representative with Northrop, said the X-47B is designed to give the Navy the capability of launching and landing unmanned planes from its aircraft carriers.

“The Navy is very interested in getting unmanned aircraft capability in every asset they own – from the smallest classes of combat ships through the aircraft carrier,” said Parmenter.

So far, two prototypes of the X-47B, which is the size of a fighter jet, have been assembled at Northrop’s Palmdale plant. The first of the prototypes has flown three times at Edwards, and the second plane will be transported for testing there this week.

Since the late 1980s, aerospace companies have downsized or moved from the county, and the number of workers has diminished dramatically as a result.

Shrinking work force

In 1990, the aerospace industry employed 130,000 in the County; by 2010, that had shrunk to 36,700.

The current $655 million X-47B contract has created about 500 jobs in Northrop’s Southern California operations – including 156 engineers in El Segundo, 40 employees at Edwards, 110 aircraft assembly workers in Palmdale and 165 software engineers in San Diego. Northrop has an additional 1,600 employees working in Southern California on other unmanned aircraft projects.

Lockheed Martin Corp. also worked on the X-47B, providing Northrop with a tail-hook system and wing edges for the planes. Lockheed’s work on the program wrapped up in December 2009.

Northrop has already built an unmanned helicopter, the Fire Scout, for the Navy. For the Air Force, the company built the jet-powered Global Hawk unmanned plane.

Phil Finnegan, a military analyst with Teal Group Corp. in Fairfax, Va., said the U.S. military has made a sizable commitment to unmanned aircraft in the last decade. Federal spending on programs such as the X-47B and the Predator drone increased from $545 million in 2002 to $4.8 billion this year.

“The unmanned aircraft revolution would have taken a lot longer, had it not been for the needs developed because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Finnegan. “With those needs came budgets to help fuel this growth.”

The unmanned aircraft are a new focus of the military because they’re very effective, said Finnegan. The planes have what pilots call “persistence,” or longevity of flight. They are capable of delivering bombs, doing reconnaissance and gathering intelligence.

Northrop began the X-47 program in 2003 with the X-47A, a Navy-contracted plane that was designed to land and take off from aircraft carriers, but was only tested on land runways. The X-47B was recently land-tested, but will be tested on an aircraft carrier in 2013.

‘Good flying airplane’

“The purpose is to prove the basic flightworthiness of the platform,” said Parmenter. “We want to make sure we have a good flying airplane before we put it through its paces.”

The plane has no vertical tails, giving it a near-stealth profile, he said. The aircraft is designed to be refueled in midflight, so it is capable of staying in the air for up to 60 hours.

Doug Abbots, a spokesperson for the Navy and the X-47B, said the demonstration planes later this year will be moved from Edwards to the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md., where they will be tested on an aircraft carrier.

Abbots said that the X-47B is purely a test program, and he would not say if or when the Navy would issue a request for proposals.

While Northrop is the only aerospace company to develop unmanned aircraft for takeoff and landing on carriers, other companies such as Chicago’s Boeing Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego could pursue a Navy RFP for the plane. Both companies have experience building unmanned aircraft for the U.S. military.

Walter at Palmdale City Hall said that both Boeing and Lockheed have plants in Palmdale, so if any of those companies win a contract, it likely would be good for the city. It’s difficult to say how much employment would go up, or even if it would be significant.

“It will help maintain employment here – with machinists and assemblers,” he said. “Unmanned aerial vehicles are taking a larger role in our nation’s defense, and we expect that to grow and become more important to our economy in the long run.”

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