FORT WORTH — More than 2,400 manufacturing jobs could be added at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth over the next several years if production ramps up as expected on the F-35 joint strike fighter, officials say.Currently, Lockheed Martin has more than 10,000 employees working on the F-35 program, including about 1,600 production workers involved in building the jet fighter at the companys west-side plant.In six years, the company expects that the programs ramped-up rate will require an additional 2,417 workers to manufacture more than 150 fighters a year. Thats four times the current rate of production of three aircraft per month.Were going to almost 200 airplanes a year, said Steve OBryan, Lockheeds vice president of program development and business integration for the F-35 program. When you talk about what the effect is going to be in Texas, its going to be significant.OBryan offered the jobs forecast in an interview with the Star-Telegram after last weeks news that Pentagon leaders had agreed to terms for the purchase of 71 additional F-35s. In the deal, the government negotiated a lower cost for the planes, a signal that the F-35 program is stabilizing after years of cost overruns and delays, aerospace analysts said. The deal has brought a new cautious optimism to the program, which has suffered through years of cost overruns and technical problems since Lockheed Martin was awarded the F-35 contract in 2001.Just last fall, Pentagon leaders were moaning publicly about the programs costs and Lockheeds inability to solve problems. Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the top Pentagon official over the F-35, called the relationship between Lockheed and the military the worst Ive seen.But since that time, Lockheed has come under new leadership, both at its corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Md., and in Fort Worth, with the appointment of Orlando P. Carvalho as the head of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. In June, Bogdan and other officials signaled their intention to increase production during a visit to Fort Worth, where they publicly lauded the company for improvements. One big unknown is the future of political and budgetary pressures in Washington, which could affect future orders. Some observers have speculated that while the F-35 program is safe now, tighter military spending could result in fewer plane orders down the road, given its status as the nations biggest weapons program. And some foreign buyers have said they would reassess their commitment to the F-35 because of its rising costs.But in announcing the new contracts Tuesday, leaders said the reduced price for Lots 6 and 7 will allow the U.S. to ultimately buy more than 2,000 F-35s.This brings confidence [to the program] going forward, OBryan said.In the last six years, only 95 aircraft of 3,100 expected to be ordered have hit the production line, resulting in a decreased need for manpower. The idea of more jobs is a welcome change for a company that has had more than 300 layoffs over the last several months and offered employees a voluntary buyout package that was accepted by about 220 workers as of January. Lockheed employs more than 14,000 people in west Fort Worth.The F-35 program has been a huge economic support in the Fort Worth area, and local businesses expect that increased production will bring even more jobs, profits and local growth in the years to come. To have the most advanced aviation technology in humankind built in this town certainly gives us bragging rights, said David Berzina, executive vice president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.Lockheed Martins payroll hit $1.4 billion last year. To Berzina, thats millions a year in payroll pumped into North Texas, Fort Worth, Tarrant County, to support businesses, to support schools, car dealers, retail. ... I dont know what other one private-sector employer makes as big of an impact in D/FW as Lockheed Martin.Some of Lockheeds 18 North Texas suppliers say they are ready to see a surge of activity at the mile-long plant.Texas is succeeding where other states are not in manufacturing, said Della Williams, president and CEO of Williams-Pryo Inc., a Fort Worth company that manufactures ground-support test kits for the F-35. I think its just going to get better.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard