AIR FORCE PLANT 42, PALMDALE, Calif. — Northrop Grumman is eyeing extra space at its F-35 center fuselage facility as a potential production line for a new aircraft — whatever that may be.
That unused space would be ripe for a top-end, tech-savvy production line, something Tom Vice, Northrop's president of aerospace systems, has clearly been thinking about.
"This site has very unique capabilities and capacities," Vice told reporters Wednesday. However, he declined to talk about "any future plans for any new Air Force programs."
Throughout the two-day trip, which was arranged and paid for by Northrop, Vice made it clear he believes his company's experience with the B-2 is a major part of its pitch for the next-generation system.
Another option for Northrop in the facility could be its offering for the Air Force's T-X program, which will deliver a next-generation trainer aircraft. Northrop is teamed with BAE Systems, L-3 and Rolls-Royce on an offering of the Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, based on the BAE Hawk design used by the UK, Canada and Australia.
Asked directly whether Northrop wanted to build T-X here, Vice said the company has not made a decision on where the Hawks would be built if the company were to win the competition. But again, there are signs it would make sense for the company.
That F-35 line was named 2013 "Assembly Plant of the Year" by Assembly Magazine, in part due to the innovative design by KUKA. That design, which features automated drilling and movable platforms to shift parts from station to station, has delivered 168 center fuselages, "all of them on time," said Hank Reed, Northrop's director of business development for the F-35 program.
When asked whether a similar setup would make sense for other programs, Andy Reynolds, vice president of manufacturing and site manager of the Palmdale facilities, said it "could be," but it would depend on the quantities being produced, as lower quantities could negate the capital investment needed in such a production line.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.