Planes: The U.S military is cutting back on F-35 purchases.

Planes: The U.S military is cutting back on F-35 purchases.

Northrop Grumman Corp. in Palmdale has been trying to ward off the U.S. Department of Defense ax.

As we reported in the Jan. 23 edition, the local plant has been accelerating the use of its new automated production line to make the fuselage for the F-35 Lightning II in hopes of demonstrating the company’s ability to thrive despite warnings that tough cuts are inevitable, and to protect the 650 employees working on the fighter jet program at Northrop’s Palmdale facility.

The ax, however, appears poised to swing down on our local operation.

The federal budget for fiscal 2013 released Feb. 13 includes $525 billion for the Pentagon and aims to capture savings by reducing purchases of the F-35 aircraft, which will come in different models for use by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and several foreign militaries. Specifically, the budget would cut $1.6 billion from the program by eliminating 13 planned aircraft.

The budget proposal funds $9.17 billion for 29 F-35 aircraft, two fewer than this year. It also proposes delaying the purchase of 179 aircraft from FY 2013- FY 2017 for $15.1 billion in savings.

Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Dianne Baumert-Moyik declined to comment specifically on the proposed budget and its potential impact to the F-35 program and Palmdale operations.

In an e-mailed statement, she said, “Northrop Grumman fully understands the budget challenges faced by the Administration and looks forward to working with industry, the Defense Department and Congress throughout the budget process to support a budget that provides for our men and women in uniform and ensures national security.”

In addition to the 650 Northrop workers in Palmdale, hundreds more work at the small- and medium-sized suppliers in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys making actuators, fasteners, and specialty machined parts for the F-35. If the ax does come down, it’ll leave a bloody mess in our Valley.

The Palmdale assembly line became active last March and made 22 fuselages in 2011; it expects to produce 43 this year.

Baumert-Moyik said the company is proceeding with those plans and expects to reach a milestone of producing its 100th fuselage in November.

The assembly line is a culmination of everything that Northrop has learned about manufacturing over the past 10 years and uses the most modern technology available to make the aircraft parts more efficiently and less costly. The fuselage moves between work stations using automated guide vehicles, and a robotic system completes the interior and exterior drilling.

Currently, the Palmdale plant is in a limited production phase for the fuselage, turning one out every five days.

U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was critical of the Administration’s budget, saying it will “reduce resources for our struggling Armed Forces and redirect them to exploding domestic bureaucracies.” McKeon’s district includes the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, home to many defense industry suppliers.

While there’s still a long way to go on the budget and there’s always hope, the Pentagon’s budget proposal is a real sign that things could get ugly for some big players in our Valley’s aerospace industry.

Other companies, meanwhile, may benefit from new investments outlined in the proposed budget.

The proposed NASA budget includes $1.3 billion for the agency’s newest space vehicle, a program that Canoga Park-based Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne will make the engines for.

The budget puts aside more than $830 million for development of space vehicles in conjunction with private companies to provide access to the International Space Station. That’s an increase of 104 percent as the agency’s 2012 budget for commercial space transportation was $406 million.

Putting more money toward commercial transportation is the right decision as long as it doesn’t cut into other space programs, said Jim Maser, president of Pratt &Whitney, in a prepared statement.

Inevitably, there are winners and losers in the U.S. budget. Let’s hope the Valley wins more than its loses.