CHANDLER, ARIZ. — When the last of the 21 B-2 Stealth aircraft rolls off the line during the first quarter of 1998, the high-tech Northrop Grumman manufacturing plant in Chandler that makes stealthy composite materials might be forced to close.
Originally, 132 of the B-2 bombers, whose capabilities give them distinct advantages in modern warfare, were scheduled to be built. But, something happened on the way to the hangar: The Cold War ended and peace broke out.
Congress reduced the purchase order to 75, then President Clinton capped the program at 20 operational aircraft. The first B-2 built for testing purposes will be brought up to operational standards for a total of 21, explained Edward L. Smith, spokesman for Northrop Grumman.
Company officials still hold out hope that orders will be increased this year, but they are not holding their breath.
``This year will be the determining year as to whether or not we'll get more orders,'' said Smith.
The Chandler plant is the only site in the world that makes the honeycomb-like composite materials that constitute the B-2's structure. Dedicated in 1988 by Hexcel Corp., Northrop Grumman acquired the 157,000-square-foot facility in January 1995, along with the technology, for about $30 million.
The Hexcel honeycomb incorporates polyimide and phenolic resins to produce materials that are lightweight and extremely strong. The B-2 has a payload of 40,000 pounds, and is capable of carrying 16 2,000-pound warheads.
Making the honeycomb is extremely labor-intensive. At its peak, the facility had 240 highly skilled employees. Today about 50 remain.
Wayne Williams, site manager for the Electromagnetic Products Group in Chandler, said the company would like to find a way to keep the plant open.
``This [radar-absorbing] technology is extremely vital to future military aircraft,'' said Williams, ``and we intend to keep this plant open if at all possible.''
Currently, in addition to making spare replacement parts for the B-2, the company is working on several research and development projects that it hopes will turn into major programs, such as using the composite in the Comanche helicopter.
``But with the state of funding, who knows where that will go,'' he added.
One research program involves products for the semiconductor industry, Williams said during a recent plant tour. However, that project uses only a few of the facility's assets — probably not enough to keep the huge plant operational.
In addition, the volume of materials required for other uses is much less than the B-2, and a noncompete agreement with Hexcel prohibits Northrop Grumman from seeking customers in commercial areas served by Hexcel.
Smith and Williams both expressed regret about losing the technical skill base the company once employed to produce the material.
``No one else can make this material and nowhere else can we find the skill base needed to produce it,'' said Williams.
Additionally, some 4,000 suppliers of parts are also affected. Smith explained that some smaller suppliers whose operations were based solely on supplying B-2 components have already gone out of business.
Northrop Grumman Corp. operates in 42 locations and employs 47,000. The company had $8 billion in sales in 1996 with 36 percent of its business in military aircraft.