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Thousands of Employees to Be Told Jobs Depend on Funding : Stealth Bomber Workers Could Face Layoffs

Times Staff Writer

Northrop and several other major defense contractors must notify, beginning Monday, thousands of employees working on the Air Force’s secret stealth bomber program that they may lose their jobs soon if almost $300 million in additional research funds is not provided for the program, according to congressional and Pentagon sources.

Los Angeles-based Northrop, the stealth’s prime contractor, has 14,000 employees working on the bomber program, most of them at the firm’s Pico Rivera unit. Several thousand Northrop workers and subcontractors’ employees could receive the 60-day notice, sources said. The stealth bomber program employs more than 34,000 workers nationwide.

The layoff warnings will be issued in accordance with the 1988 plant closings law that requires 60 days notice of terminations by large employers. If lawmakers reject a proposal to shift the money into a special research and development account for the bomber, the thousands of workers could be laid off in the first week of June.

Although congressional approval would avert the layoffs, Capitol Hill sources said the proposed fund shift has met opposition from some members of the four congressional committees that must approve it.

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The Air Force on March 14 requested Congress’ permission to shift $290 million earmarked for production of the B-2, or stealth, bomber into research and development of the aircraft. The proposed shift, called a reprogramming, must be approved by the House and Senate Armed Services committees and by the defense subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, which have scheduled special sessions in April to consider the issue.

The proposed budget change signals further technical trouble in the $68-billion aircraft program, which has grown substantially in cost and complexity since it was launched during the Administration of President Jimmy Carter. Major design changes in the controversial bomber, which was unveiled last November, have delayed the program by 18 months.

The first of 132 B-2 bombers to be built was scheduled to make test flights early this year, but that has now been put off until late spring or early summer.

The Air Force has said it needs the added funds by early June if the development of the bomber is to continue uninterrupted.

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Congressional sources called the proposed injection of funds a “substantial” increase over the amount already appropriated.

“This indicates the program continues to be in serious trouble,” said John Pike, a defense technology expert for the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. “There are going to be more increases. It sounds like they’ve got to have $300 million just to get this one aircraft off the ground--and may need to make similar changes in the handful of other B-2 bombers they’ve already built.”

Said one House aide: “It’s not a simple, routine, rubber-stamp reprogramming like most of them. The fact that they’ve asked for such a major reprogramming in the middle of the budget year raises some serious questions about their management of the program.”


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