In the early 1990s California went into an economic tailspin with the end of the Cold War. Reduction in defense spending on aerospace, one of the state’s prime economic engines, slowed resulting in an economic downturn causing a big hit to the state budget. To a lesser but significant degree, funding decisions involving the F-35 Lightening II fighter plane, would have a ripple effect through the California economy.

Yesterday, at the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, executives from both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman put on a presentation demonstrating the importance of the aircraft both to America’s defense and to the California economy.

The F-35 has been a target of budget cutters who are looking for ways to shave away the federal budget deficit.

Danny Conroy, Director of the Air Force F-35 program for Lockheed Martin said the project provides 27,000 jobs directly and indirectly in the state including the center fuselage assembled in Palmdale, advanced parts assembled and software prepared in El Segundo and navigation and communication readied in San Diego.

“California is vital to the production of the F-35,” he said.

In addition, 298 suppliers to the project are in California, including small businesses. Conroy said the F-35 project provided $6 billion in economic activity for the state.

The aircraft’s up-to-date stealth technology would replace aging fighters that, on average, are 22 years old. The hi-tech plane would be the best equipment afforded US and NATO flyers.

But the plane is not cheap. Estimated costs are $70 million to build each one on average, although the cost for the first planes off the production line will be more.

Cost savings in building the fighter was emphasized at the presentation. Three versions of the plane are being manufactured. The Air Force would receive the bulk of the planned 2443 US planes. That aircraft is designed as a conventional take off and landing craft. The Marine version is built to land and take off in tight quarters such as a parking lot. The Navy version is designed for flying off an aircraft carrier.

To save money, all three versions are built on the same platform. The cockpit control panels for the three versions of the F-35 are nearly identical.

Lockheed Martin’s Conroy said about 29-32 planes are being built each year. He said increasing the order for the planes would reduce production costs and give suppliers certainty, which in turn would reduce costs from the suppliers. The goal is to produce about 20 planes a month.

Conroy admitted that certain original cost estimates for the plane were low, but he said there is always a risk in early development and the unknowns because of new science that is applied in the craft. He said the project is supported by Defense Secretary (and former California congressman) Leon Panetta.

During these difficult economic times for the country, big budget items should be a concern. However, the government’s constitutional mandate to provide for the common defense must also be kept.

Because the United States has recently been involved in two wars, defense spending in total dollars is high in comparison to pre- 9/11, but still makes up less than 25% of the federal budget. As Senator Dianne Feinstein pointed out in charts circulated at her Sacramento visit this week, entitlements are 59% of the federal budget.

All areas of the budget need close scrutiny and reductions have to be made. With the need to update America’s fighters and the efforts to control costs, the F-35 Lightening II probably will withstand budget adjustments and continue to provide fuel for the California economy.