Boeing employees in Wichita, Kan., leave a meeting Wednesday where the… (Travis Heying, Associated…)
As aerospace workers in Southern California and across the nation brace for protracted cuts in Pentagon spending, Boeing Co. announced plans to close a historic facility in Wichita, Kan., where the company has built and modified military aircraft since the 1920s.
The decision Wednesday was seen as a precursor to more cutbacks in the defense industry, as Congress and the Obama administration move to tighten federal spending on weapons procurement in the coming decade.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is slated to preview plans to trim $450 billion from the military budget over the next 10 years. But military contractors have already begun to consolidate manufacturing facilities and eliminate thousands of aerospace jobs throughout the nation, including Southern California.
Last January, Boeing said it was cutting 900 jobs at its sprawling Long Beach plant, where it builds C-17 cargo jets. In June, Lockheed Martin Corp. announced that it was cutting about 1,500 positions across its aeronautics business, including jobs in California. In August, Northrop Grumman Corp. said it was cutting 500 jobs in its aerospace division, which is spread throughout the Southland.
"Companies are in the middle of adjusting to the new budget realities," said Fred Downey, a national security analyst with the Aerospace Industries Assn., an Arlington, Va., trade group. "What you're seeing is the correlation of how much money is in the budget and how many jobs are coupled with it."
The $450 billion in cuts through 2021 is what the Pentagon and White House agreed on last summer, but there are nagging worries in the aerospace industry that Congress will cut an additional $500 billion.
In such a scenario, the Aerospace Industries Assn. estimated, 1 million jobs of all kinds would be lost nationwide, 126,000 of which would be in California.
"There's just not enough work to go around anymore," said Tom Captain, principal and vice chairman of Deloitte's aerospace and defense practice. "When there are job losses, that will lead to a consolidation of facilities — the two go hand-in-hand."
Boeing, which employs about 22,000 people in California, said its decision to close its Wichita facility was directly linked to tighter Pentagon budgets.
"The decision to close our Wichita facility was difficult but ultimately was based on a thorough study of the current and future market environment and our ability to remain competitive," Mark Bass, a Boeing vice president, said in a statement. "We recognize how this will affect the lives of the highly skilled men and women who work here, so we will do everything possible to assist our employees, their families and our community through this difficult transition."
The sprawling complex — made up of 97 buildings on about 400 acres — has played a large role in Wichita's claim to be the "Air Capital of the World." During World War II, the complex was where the company churned out B-29 Superfortress bombers, and later the larger B-52s. At the facility's peak, more than 40,000 employees built four bombers a day.
The site now focuses on maintenance, modification and upgrades with more than 2,160 employees. Boeing said that it plans to officially close the plant by the end of next year and will move all remaining work to its facilities in Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Seattle area.
Wichita still hosts manufacturing operations to big names in the aerospace industry, including Bombardier Aerospace, Cessna Aircraft Co. and Raytheon Co.
Before Wednesday's announcement, workers at Boeing's Wichita plant had planned on decades of work modifying 767 jets into flying gas stations for the nation's fleet of bomber and fighter jets. Boeing won a high-profile contest last February against European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co. to build aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force.
At the time, the company pledged 7,500 jobs to Kansas. Boeing's Wednesday announcement "outraged" Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).
"The fact that Boeing is now refusing to honor its commitment to the people of Kansas is greatly troubling to me and to thousands of Kansans who trusted that Boeing's promise would be kept," he said in a statement. "A company so much a part of the Wichita community for 80 years should not make this decision lightly."