BAE says 1,400 at work on F-22 safe

NASHUA – BAE Systems says the 1,400 jobs in Nashua dedicated to building components for F-22 fighter jets will be safe, despite Tuesday’s U.S. Senate vote to end production of the fleet.

Company spokesman Matthew Bates said when BAE’s role in F-22 production ends in 2011, employees will be refocused to build similar parts for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the newer and smaller jet preferred by the Pentagon.

“We anticipate a lot of that skill and expertise will transfer seamlessly,” Bates said.

The 1,400 people in Nashua employed by the F-22 program represent nearly one-third of BAE’s New Hampshire work force.

Bates said the Senate vote came as no surprise to BAE, the nation’s sixth largest defense contractor and Nashua’s largest employer.

“We’ve been watching the defense market for some time now, so the F-22 being terminated – or capped at 187 – was expected,” he said, adding that BAE’s 50 suppliers in New Hampshire are more likely to be impacted by the program ending.

Last month, BAE announced it would lay off roughly 125 people in southern New Hampshire in anticipation of decreased defense spending.

The “reduction in force” was part of a companywide move to prepare for expected reductions in defense-related contracts, which make up the bulk of BAE’s business.

However, it’s unclear if the move was related to the F-22 program.

Tuesday’s 58-40 Senate vote is being lauded as a big victory for President Barack Obama, who threatened to veto the $680 billion defense bill if it included $1.75 billion for production of another seven F-22s.

U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican, sided with Obama in voting to strike the funding, while U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, voted to keep it.

The House still needs to vote but support for F-22s is also waning there, The Hill newspaper reported Wednesday.

Critics of the Air Force’s F-22 program have called it wasteful spending. The jets, conceptualized in the Cold War era, can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build but have never been used in combat and are not considered suitable for modern warfare. They are not being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Supporters point out that the program supports thousands of jobs across the United States and question whether now is the right time to put those jobs in jeopardy. The program employs about 25,000 people at 1,000 suppliers in 44 states, according to a Washington Post report.

BAE makes F-22 components known as electronic warfare suites, described by the company as the “nerve center” for pilots. Among other things, the suites make the planes undetectable to enemy radar and improve the pilot’s situational awareness.

To date, BAE has delivered 159 to Lockheed Martin, the primary F-22 contractor, leaving just 18 to produce until the fleet is capped at 187. Bates said the last suite is scheduled for delivery in May 2011.

F-35s are less expensive to build than F-22s, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates is requesting a larger fleet. Thousands of the jets for all branches of the military are proposed over the program’s life, with some 500 planned in the next five years.

BAE’s production work on components for F-35s is set to begin in 2013. During the lag time in production after F-22 work is complete, employees will be doing preparation work for the F-35s, Bates said.