WASHINGTON — Sen. Bill Nelson is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush to learn more about the company's newly announced plans to design the military's new long-range bomber at an expanded facility in Brevard County.
The afternoon meeting in Nelson's Capitol Hill office may offer more clues about what was initially known as "Project Magellan," an expansion at Northrop's Melbourne International Airport facility that could bring as many as 1,800 high-paying jobs to the area.
Nelson told reporters Friday the Air Force is expected to award a contract for its new Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) "within a year" to either Northrop Grumman or a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Nelson thinks Northrop Grumman has a competitive advantage based on its previous work building bombers for the Pentagon.
"I believe that Northrop Grumman has the leg up because they are the builders of the B2 Bat Wing (designed) Stealth Bomber," he told reporters. "But it will be a vigorous competition because the advertised price (of the long range bomber) is about $55 billion but (there are) some estimates that it could go as high as $88 billion."
The Orlando Democrat, who has been regularly briefed by Northrop Grumman officials, said the work being done in phase one of the project — which was kept secret until recently — would add about 300 workers. The work would include design of a prototype for the long-range bomber and engineering work on aircraft systems the company already makes.
Most of those jobs would stay even if Northrop Grumman doesn't win the bomber contract, Nelson said.
The Air Force is looking to build 80 to 100 of the bombers, which would be able to strike 100 targets on a single flight. They would replace an aging fleet that Pentagon officials worry is not prepared to meet challenges posed by emerging threats, said Peter W. Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution.
Singer said Northrop Grumman's work on the B2 is both a positive and a negative. The company does have experience building stealth bombers for the Air Force, but the cost of the program spiraled out of control, which could encourage Pentagon officials to try someone new.
"The decisions on what to buy are never made along a single factor," he said. "It's not (just) a price point or capability. Things weigh in on everything from that company's history with the Pentagon to who won the last big one to who can mobilize (support)."
All three companies — Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed — flex plenty of political muscle on Capitol Hill by giving to lawmakers and lobbying. Northrop Grumman alone spent more than $20 million in 2013 lobbying members of Congress and federal agencies, notably the Department of Defense, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based watchdog group.
And all three companies collectively employ tens of thousands of people working in states represented by influential lawmakers.
Nelson said individual lawmakers' eagerness to see their constituents building the next generation of bomber could have some effect on the contract decision.
"The Air Force does not want that political dynamic to enter, but as a practical matter it always does," he said. "However, the Air Force very carefully tries to keep a buffer in the making of its decisions because if there were any implication of political influence as to where it went, obviously the one that does not win the contract is going to contest and appeal the contract award."
He said landing those high-paying jobs would be a huge boost for Brevard County.
"(It's) 1,800 folks," he said. "They've got families. They've got spouses that will be employed as well. They have to buy groceries, they have to buy homes. they have to use roads. You're talking about a significant impact on the economy."