NILES — As production of the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet increases from dozens a year to more than a hundred a year, the Niles plant responsible for supplying its titanium parts is reaping the benefits with a $1.1 billion contract. While Jeremy Halford, president of Arconic, did not outline what the contract would mean specifically for the Niles plant, he said growth in the aerospace industry is going to mean good things for the local facility because that is the plant’s focus. Spending money on war machines like the F-35 — touted as the most lethal, stealth fighter jet in the world — is like paying an insurance premium for world order, said U.S. Rep. Timothy J. Ryan, D-Howland. “It is my job to make sure that the money we are spending gets down to steel workers in Niles, Ohio. That puts our people to work. If we are going to spend $500 billion, $600 billion, we want to make sure that money is spent here in the United States,” Ryan said.The F-35 was costly enough to draw the ire of President-elect Donald J. Trump in a December tweet, when he said the cost of the program was “tremendous,” and suggested Boeing offer an alternative to the Lockheed Martin contract. The comment impacted Lockheed stocks.
Since the first lot of F-35s came off the production line, the cost has dropped by 61 percent, said J.R. McDonald, vice president of Air Force programs and Lockheed Martin government affairs. Production of the fighter jet is ramping up. The production rate rises to 90 in 2018, 110 in 2019, and the company will produce 180 a year until 2,440 have been produced, McDonald said. “With the ramp up, as production grows, that will be a growth driver for us,” Halford said. “And, the aerospace industry is continuing to grow globally. As the demand for planes increase, and planes become lighter and more efficient, that macro-driver is what is leading to more jobs in Niles, Ohio,” Halford said. In 2017, Lockheed Martin is producing 66 planes for the U.S. Air Force, the Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy and American allies, McDonald said. The cost for the planes decrease when more are produced, McDonald said. The price is expected to drop from $94.6 million to $79 million by 2020, McDonald said. But the program has been anticipating for lower costs as production stages morphed Programs to produce the F-35 are expensive, Ryan said. And, Ryan said, it is his responsibility to make sure those dollars are spent locally.
The use of titanium in airplanes is growing as lighter, more efficient plane designs are sought, positioning plants like Arconic for more business down the road, Halford said. The Niles branch of Arconic Titanium and Engineered Products has supplied Lockheed Martin with titanium parts since the beginning of the F-35 project, and secured a $1.1 billion contract to continue the supply through 2024.