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Youthful Makeover for Aging Aircraft

Refurbishment efforts are translating into big bucks for Southland defense firms

October 08, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

ABOVE THE SIERRA NEVADA — As the B-1 bomber linked up with an aerial refueling tanker at 18,000 feet, the "old girl" seemed to show her age.

Tethered precariously to the tanker by a long boom, the 20-year-old bomber suddenly rattled and shook.

But moments later, after having taken on a load of fuel, the B-1 came alive as it disconnected itself from the tanker, swept its wings back and began a supersonic dash across the Mojave Desert to make a ceremonial flight over the Los Angeles County Fair.

"There is still a lot left in this old girl," Lt. Col. Matt Bartlett said as he first slowed the plane down for the flyover and then pushed the throttle to full, creating a burst of ear-piercing noise that set off dozens of car alarms below.

The B-1 fleet has had a $2.3-billion makeover, and more is in the works, transforming what was once a much-maligned relic of the Cold War to a workhorse of air campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It isn't alone. With few new weapons in the pipeline and many aircraft aging beyond their warranties, the Pentagon has embarked on one of its biggest refurbishment efforts in more than two decades.

And that is translating into big bucks for defense firms -- with many of them, including B-1 program contractor Boeing Co., boasting operations and teams of suppliers in Southern California.

The amount of work being generated is "absolutely huge," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

In recent weeks, Boeing has found itself the target of pointed criticism from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others for a plan to manufacture 100 commercial jetliners, convert them into aerial refueling tankers and then lease them to the Air Force for $16 billion. The Air Force would have the option of purchasing the planes for $4 billion at the expiration of the six-year lease.

Last month, the Pentagon's internal watchdog agency launched an investigation into allegations that Boeing may have illegally obtained proprietary information from European rival Airbus to secure the deal.

Yet although the lease proposal has sparked headlines, it's the more mundane business of fixing up old aircraft that has helped turn Boeing's defense division into a big moneymaker.

"In the current budgetary environment," noted Thompson, "the Pentagon may have to delay new weapons development, and that means it will have to spend a lot of money to keep the old weapons combat ready."

For Boeing, the nation's second-largest defense contractor, upgrading and refurbishing aircraft is now one of its fastest-growing segments of its business.

Such work generated about $4 billion in sales last year, or about 20% of the Chicago-based company's defense-related revenue. That sum is expected to more than double in the next five years.

At Boeing's helicopter plant in Mesa, Ariz., thousands of workers no longer make new aircraft for the Pentagon. Yet the factory floor is bustling with activity, turning old Apache attack helicopters into near-new, more lethal Apache Longbows.

In a glimpse of what the aircraft industry could become, beat-up, combat-worn AH-64 Apaches -- most of them built in the 1980s -- make their way into a building akin to an auto body shop.

Each aircraft is stripped down to the bare structure, which is then patched up, repainted and moved to a second building where much of the rebuilding takes place.

The work, which can cost $5 million to $10 million per aircraft depending on the extent of the refurbishment, includes new wiring, radar and avionics, making the aircraft four times more capable of identifying and striking a target than its predecessor, Boeing executives say.

An Apache Longbow, for instance, can now strike a target even if it is not in its visual line of sight, greatly extending its range. Building an Apache Longbow from scratch would cost about $20 million.

Such upgrades are being made to many of the Pentagon's mainline combat aircraft, including the F-14, F-15 and F-16 fighters as well as B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers.

No one knows for sure exactly how much the Pentagon plunks down for upgrades each year because the spending is often couched in myriad budget items, from each individual weapons project to general categories such as research and development, as well as maintenance and operation. Many of the programs are also classified and not revealed in public budget documents.

But some analysts believe that the Pentagon will spend up to a quarter of its $75-billion procurement budget to refurbish and upgrade existing aircraft, tanks and ships this fiscal year. Tens of billions more are likely to be spent on researching and developing new radars, avionics and computer systems for the aging fleet.

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