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Northrop Wagers on More Use of Spy Drones

October 01, 1985|ALAN GOLDSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

Northrop Corp., Ventura County's largest private employer, is continuing to expand its Ventura Division in anticipation of a boom in the unmanned spy jet business.

The Northrop unit, which increased its employment over the last five years from 850 to 2,100, announced last week that it would add another 250 engineering and technical jobs by the end of 1986. The new workers will be housed in a 60,000-square-foot engineering building that was dedicated Friday at the company's Newbury Park complex.

The Ventura Division and its forerunners have built unmanned military targets for 50 years. Some are used in military exercises to simulate missiles, jet fighters and bombers. Others are used for gunnery practice on target ranges.

As weapons have become more complex, targets have had to become more sophisticated as well. Some new targets must be able to fly at 50 feet or lower at very high speeds, and be capable of dodging jet fighters.

Increased Demand

Increased demand for targets fueled the previous growth at the Ventura Division. David J. Smith, an aerospace analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York, estimates that the unit's annual sales have risen from $70 million to $350 million over the last five years.

Over the next several years, however, the Pentagon's budget for target aircraft is expected to remain stable, and Northrop is looking to grow in the unmanned reconnaissance market. With designs once used for its targets, Northrop is developing radio-controlled spy drones, capable of speeds of more than 500 m.p.h.

John N. Simon, who follows Northrop for Seidler Amdec Securities in Los Angeles, said competition will be tough in the unmanned reconnaissance business. "There are lots of big guns in there," he said. "Everyone in the industry has been talking about unmanned planes for years. But now it looks like something serious might happen."

10 Jets Tested

Since July, Northrop has tested 10 jet-powered reconnaissance jets it built for the U.S. Navy under a $4-million development contract.

As defense contractors benefiting from technological advances have reduced the size of aircraft equipment, reconnaissance drones have become more attractive. Drones are cheaper to make than jets, and take up less precious deck space on aircraft carriers.

Although the Israelis have been using drones for years, they are less common in the American arsenal. But incidents such as the downing of the jet flown by Navy Lt. Robert Goodman Jr. over Lebanon in 1984 point to the risk involved in manned reconnaissance missions with multimillion-dollar aircraft.

In the next decade, according to Greg Waskul, a Northrop spokesman, the company expects defense spending for unmanned aircraft to grow sixfold.

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