Spy aircraft to be built at Cecil

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on August 3, 2004.

Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer will be making the military's newest spy plane at Cecil Commerce Center as part of a team led by defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp.

Lockheed won the $879 million contract to develop the Aerial Common Sensor system, which will pack a variety of sensors into an airplane designed to monitor enemy communications, radar systems and troop movements, the U.S. Army announced Monday.

Eventually, the Army plans to buy 38 jets for about $6 billion, with the Navy getting up to 19 additional planes.

Those planes will be constructed in Jacksonville, a project that could bring 150 to 200 technical manufacturing jobs paying upward of $40,000 to workers. Embraer has committed to moving into Cecil Commerce Center -- the former naval air station on the Westside -- only if it received a federal contract like the spy plane deal.

Design and development work on the plane should begin at Cecil next July, said Wes Colburn, Lockheed's director of surveillance and reconnaissance, with the system going into full production in 2007.

"We already have our staff in place to start the design and development of the system," Colburn said. "We're working with Embraer on the design and modifications that have to be made. That work and all the development and tooling is happening, well, tomorrow."

Local officials were at least as excited by the news as the manufacturers themselves.

"We believe that Cecil is the perfect site," said Susan Wiles, chief of communications for Mayor John Peyton. "We look forward to having this company and the jobs it will create in this community."

The presence of a major international manufacturer at the commerce center -- where federal, state and local agencies have contributed $10.8 million to build Embraer a facility and provide employee training -- could jump-start economic development at the site, said Jerry Mallot, executive vice president of the Cornerstone Regional Development Partnership, which worked to bring the Brazilian company to Jacksonville.

"We are absolutely ecstatic about the awarding of the contract to Embraer," Mallot said. "We expect this will be a major new development for Cecil Field, very much along the lines we have envisioned its potential for several years. "

Having Embraer set up shop in Jacksonville will bring more depth to the defense aviation industry in the area, said Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla. "This is the kind of presence that demonstrates the strategic importance of Northeast Florida," the congressman said.

Although the contract is all but a done deal, losing bidder Northrop Grumman will be given at least a month to lodge a protest concerning the project, an Army spokesman said.

In a statement, Northrop Grumman, whose plane would have been built by Gulfstream, said it thought its proposal was the best choice for the system.

"We have been the premier supplier of Army ISR technology for 50 years and a mainstay of airborne surveillance sensors and systems for other U.S. armed services and international customers," a Northrop Grumman spokesman said. "We eagerly await the Army's debriefing on their reasons for declining what we believe to be the best-value proposal for this critical program."

Some analysts were also surprised that the military had selected the Lockheed Martin/Embraer team for the project.

"The prevailing view among the experts is the Northrop Grumman team had a big edge in their aircraft," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "I think the general view is the Gulfstream aircraft was superior in every regard. "

In the end, Thompson said, the choice came down to the design of the actual sensor system and the cost of the project.

"The standards that were used to judge the competing bids focused very heavily on technical performance and price," he said. "Apparently that enabled Lockheed to win."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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