Boeing will assemble the new T-X Air Force training jet at its north St. Louis County campus — supporting 1,800 jobs locally — if it beats out rivals for the lucrative defense contract, company officials said Monday.
Industry analysts had mostly expected St. Louis to get T-X work if Boeing wins the contract, but Monday’s announcement — complete with members of the area’s congressional delegation, local politicians and regional business leaders — made it official.
“It’s not ‘if’ it’s awarded, it’s ‘when’ it’s awarded,” Rep Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, told a cheering crowd of about 200 Boeing employees and area officials gathered in a hangar displaying two of the company’s T-X models.
A decision from the Defense Department is expected by the end of the year. Boeing has teamed up with Saab, the Swedish maker of the Gripen fighter, in its bid for the trainer work.
It faces competition from a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries and Italian aircraft maker Leonardo and its U.S. subsidiary, DRS Technologies. Lockheed would make its trainer in Greenville, S.C., while Leonardo would manufacture its version in Tuskegee, Ala., according to industry publication Defense News.
If Boeing and Saab are successful, the contract to replace the Air Force’s decades-old T-38 trainer could be worth up to $16 billion to the company. The Defense Department is expected to buy up to 350 aircraft over the 15-year life of the contract, with the first planes delivered in 2024.
Leanne Caret, CEO of Boeing’s Defense Space and Security division, said the decision to assemble in St. Louis was “purposeful.” She commended the team that was able to take the new aircraft from design to first flight test in under three years, calling the speed “unprecedented in this industry.”
A Boeing T-X made its first test flight here in December, and a second went airborne last month. Boeing unveiled its T-X trainer in September during a similar ceremony.
“If you see these beautiful aircraft flying around town, this is the team that got us to the flight ramp” and into the air for testing, said Shelley Lavender, Boeing’s senior St. Louis executive and president of Boeing Military Aircraft.
Though the contract would support 1,800 direct and indirect jobs, a Boeing spokeswoman said the company didn’t have a breakdown of how many of those jobs would be actual company employees and how many would be from suppliers and secondary economic activity caused by employees buying houses and other goods. Neither would Boeing say how much T-X work would be done in St. Louis versus Saab facilities.
Boeing spokeswoman Deborah VanNierop said it was “possible” some of the 1,800 could be new Boeing jobs. Boeing employs about 14,000 people in the St. Louis area, the company said.
But many of those 1,800 jobs may well turn out to be new, said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank on security issues. He noted that the St. Louis plant’s big product, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, had recently won several orders from and was expected to have enough orders to last until the middle of next decade. Plus, most of the work will be done by Boeing rather than its partners, he said.
The White House approved in September the $7 billion sale of F/A-18s to Kuwait and F-15 Strike Eagles to Qatar; and in November, Canada said it would buy 18 Super Hornets.
“I think that a lot of these jobs could actually be new rather than workers shifting from the Super Hornet or the Eagle over to the trainer,” Thompson said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., nodded to the new momentum behind the F/A-18 production line in St. Louis, declaring she and her colleagues in Congress were pleased to “ink the deal” for next year’s budget that included money for 14 more U.S. Super Hornets.
Pointing to the Republican and Democratic politicians in attendance, McCaskill, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said partisan divisions dissolved when it came to supporting the thousands of jobs at Boeing’s St. Louis operations.
“We are united behind you,” she told the workers gathered Monday.
There is no other plant and workforce that could build the new T-X trainer as well as Boeing in St. Louis, said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. “The history of military aviation literally runs through this plant,” he said.
Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, said his team would work “side by side, every step of the way” to do everything it could to ensure Boeing won the T-X contract. But he indicated he believes Boeing already had an edge because of how quickly it had built and tested a prototype.
“I think we’ve got a leg up because of the stage we’re at,” Greitens said.
Thompson, at the Lexington Institute, thinks economic considerations may well play into this award.
“What you see in the T-X program is the first big military award of the (President Donald) Trump era, where economic goals and military goals might coincide,” Thompson said. “This is an opportunity to boost manufacturing jobs in a part of the country that has lost for decades. I just think it is St. Louis’ turn.”
Any new jobs Boeing adds could position it to tap state subsidies. Almost three years ago, Missouri dangled $229 million in subsidies over 18 years if Boeing grows its workforce here by at least 2,000 people. But Boeing would collect up to $146 million in state incentives over 10 years even if it just maintains employment at 14,500 jobs. It would have to return some money if employment drops below 11,000.
Boeing has announced several moves to add jobs here in recent years. Those include 700 new jobs expected by 2021 to build wing and tail parts for the new 777X airliner. Other Boeing jobs moving here include service work for the F-22 fighter, information technology and research jobs. In November, it said it would move 500 professional service jobs here from California, including engineering and finance positions.
However, those moves don’t appear to have changed the total job count much. Actually, at the time of the 777X announcement, Boeing said it employed close to 15,000 people, a higher number than the 14,000 it referenced Monday.