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Airbus Factory in the South Paved the Way for Lockheed’s Tanker Proposal

Lockheed Martin is pitching a partnership with a European company to make U.S. government’s next refueling tanker aircraft in the South, with the military outfitting potentially creating 1,000 jobs in Georgia.

While its LMXT proposal plays up its “American-made” bona fides, it’s hard to ignore that the defense contractor, which makes C-130s and F-35 wings at a massive Marietta plant, is teaming up with Airbus, a company that until last year found itself in the crosshairs of U.S. trade officials.

Based in France, with significant stakes owned by France, Germany and Spain, Airbus is the arch rival of U.S.-based Boeing, which beat out the company for a 179-plane tanker that Airbus initially won in 2008, before the contract was bid out again in part due to political pressure. 

The current Lockheed proposal builds on Airbus’s efforts to assuage trade concerns by building a factory in Mobile, Ala., in 2015, illustrating that it doesn’t take an American company to produce American-made jets. 

The $600 million Mobile plant, which now employs 1,000 people, makes the A320 and A220 single-aisle jets. (Atlanta’s own Delta Air Lines served as a launch customer for the U.S.-built A220s, introduced with 109 total seats in 2018.)

The Lockheed-Airbus proposal would see Airbus add a production line to make a commercial version of the wide-body A330 at the Mobile plant. It would then be flown to Lockheed-Martin’s sprawling Marietta campus for conversions enabling it to fuel smaller fighter, transport and maritime patrol planes mid-flight. (Lockheed says Airbus would continue to make the A330 commercial jets at its home base in France as well.) 

The collaboration would leverage the existing Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport platform, a “combat-proven” design used by 14 nations that promises “established allied interoperability and [a] resilient global supply chain,” according to Lockheed Martin. As the main contractor for the Defense Department, Lockheed Martin would be in charge of outfitting the planes with the system and U.S. Air Force-only capabilities.

Lockheed played up its investment in both Georgia and Alabama, states with a proven track record of aerospace excellence. The company employs more than 2,600 people on rotorwing and hypersonic capabilities in northern Alabama, including a plant focused on the latter at Courtland, Ala., last October. More than 5,000 Georgians work for Lockheed Martin, including 4,500 focused on the Hercules C-130J transport planes and the F-35 Lighting II center wings at the Marietta plant. Total economic impact across the two states is $8.3 billion including payroll, taxes, supplier sales, donations and other downstream effects. For its part, Airbus has contributed a $1.2 billion in impact in Alabama since it opened in 2015, with responsibility for more than 15,000 jobs just considering construction and payroll, Lockheed said in a release.

“Establishing this production work in Alabama and Georgia confirms Lockheed Martin’s commitment that the LMXT will be built in America, by Americans, for Americans,” said Lockheed Martin Chairman, President and CEO James Taiclet. “The LMXT will strengthen global security by enabling our U.S. service members to carry out their most critical missions at extended ranges. At home, the LMXT will strengthen job growth and manufacturing by drawing on the experience and talents of a high-tech American workforce in two states that are proven leaders in aviation.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp visited the Lockheed Martin factory again for the announcement Monday, less than six months after he used it as a backdrop to tout a tax incentive aimed at enabling “high-impact aerospace projects.”

Though the legislation doesn’t mention the company, it’s clearly tailor-made for the aerospace and defense giant. To qualify for a 6 percent state tax credit on top of Georgia’s existing jobs tax incentives, a project must commit $500 million in capital and commit to creating 1,800 jobs. It’s unclear if two separate projects in short succession would count. Lockheed is bidding on multiple defense projects, including some through its classified Skunk Works innovation center at the Marietta plant. During an event last August, Lockheed executives pointed to projects worth 3,000 jobs and $1.6 billion, if they were to win outstanding government contracts.  

Lockheed’s partnership with Airbus, initiated via a 2018 memorandum of agreement to jointly develop tanker capabilities, is similarly up in the air, as it is contingent on an award by the U.S. Air Force that would likely see deliveries start in  2024-25.  

Learn more about the deal here.

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