Northrop Grumman aims to retain grip on aviation.

Author:Erwin, Sandra I.

* Almost all military contractors these days see every competition as a "must win." And that is especially true for Northrop Grumman Corp. as it makes a big play to join the ranks of Lockheed Martin and Boeing as one of the nation's top manufacturers of combat aircraft.

The company has set its sights on upcoming Air Force competitions that would give the winners a once-in-a-generation chance to solidify their place in the industry. The biggest prize will be the $55 billion long-range strike bomber program. Other coveted deals will be the contract to build a fleet of training jets for Air Force fighter pilots, and a $2 billion program to replace aging ground surveillance airplanes.

Northrop Grumman Corporate Vice President Thomas E. Vice said the company has spent years preparing for these high-stakes competitions.

Vice presides over Northrop Grumman's $10 billion Aerospace Systems sector in Redondo Beach, California. He joined the company nearly three decades ago as an engineer on the B-2 stealth bomber program.

He faces the daunting task of positioning Northrop to win programs it has owned for decades and now are at risk of being seized by competitors. The company is the incumbent manufacturer in three key competitions--the new Air Force stealth bomber, the T-X jet trainer and the Joint Stars ground surveillance aircraft--and losing them would put a serious damper on its ambitions to return to the top tier of military aviation.

Vice's immediate focus is the upcoming first flight of the company's T-X jet trainer prototype, which he describes as a "revolutionary" design, although its performance specs and specific features remain closely held secrets. The first operational prototype will fly later this year over the Mojave Desert. The stakes are huge for Northrop, which chose to invest significant resources in the program because it views it as one that is "strongly supported" by the Air Force, Vice told National Defense in an interview. "The Air Force sees it as a priority. So we balanced our investment. We made some internal decisions on where we wanted to invest."

Winning T-X is a matter of pride for the company, which built the current Air Force T-38 Talon, the world's first supersonic trainer. When the new trainer program first emerged in 2011, the Air Force insisted it wanted to buy an existing design from the open market to save time and money. But it later concluded that off-the-shelf airplanes might not meet stringent performance requirements in order to train fifth-generation fighter pilots--like sustained Gs and tight angles of attack. Northrop Grumman initially had teamed with BAE Systems to offer the Hawk trainer, but when it became clear that the Air Force was moving in a different direction, the company turned to its aircraft concept designers for fresh ideas.

Northrop spent the past two years fine-tuning a...

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