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October 11. 2013 9:53PM

Pentagon pulls plug on BAE F-35 helmet, NH to build infrared missile warning system

NASHUA — It was a good news/bad news week for BAE Systems, New Hampshire's largest manufacturing employer.

The Pentagon said on Thursday it would halt work on a second pilot helmet being developed for the F-35 fighter jet by BAE, and focus exclusively on the main helmet built by Rockwell Collins and Israel's Elbit Systems.

The BAE Systems division in Nashua was not involved in the helmet project, and is not directly affected by the decision, according to a company spokesman, but it was a disappointment to the company overall.

Earlier in the week, the Pentagon announced that the Army had signed a $39 million contract for infrared missile warning systems to protect military aircraft, with all of the development, spare parts, systems engineering and technical support coming from BAE locations in Nashua.

While the contract for the warning systems was welcomed news for BAE, a contract for the F-35 fighter helmet would have been a bonanza for the company, which already has a stake in the F-35 electronic warfare systems and flight controls.

The F-35, the most expensive military program in history, is intended to replace an aging fighter jet fleet for the U.S. and many of its allies. It comes with a sophisticated helmet that fuses data from the plane's many cameras and other sensors in the visor, an advanced new system that allows pilots to literally see through the wings and floor of the aircraft.

The Pentagon's F-35 program office and Lockheed Martin, the main contractor on the project, hired BAE Systems to develop an alternate helmet in 2011 after problems with the Rockwell-Elbit helmet that is currently used in testing and training. Most of the helmet work was being done in the United Kingdom, where BAE is headquartered.

Lockheed spokesman Laura Siebert told Reuters that the company had spent about $57 million on the second helmet to date, with total investment slated to reach $104 million. Ending the BAE work on the helmet program would save $47 million, she said. Lockheed and BAE are negotiating the terms of halting work on the alternate helmet.

"We are disappointed at the decision by Lockheed Martin and the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office to discontinue the pursuit of a second helmet for the F-35 aircraft," said Kristin L. Gossel, director of external engagement for U.S. headquarters of BAE Systems in Arlington, Va., in a prepared statement.

She said BAE had created a reliable, dependable and affordable design after two years of working on the project.

"Our program team with decades of experience in development, production, and fielding of helmet-mounted displays has achieved every milestone to date, providing a critical viable alternative for the customer," she said. "As a valued and long-term supporter and partner on the Joint Strike Fighter program, BAE Systems continues to stand ready to support the program in the future."

Lockheed Martin and its subcontractors, including BAE, have been under intense pressure from the Pentagon to reduce the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which is behind schedule and over budget.

As far as employment levels for BAE in New Hampshire, where the company has more than 4,000 workers, both announcements are a wash. The southern New Hampshire units were not involved in the helmet project, and the $39 million contract for airborne defense systems will be handled by the existing workforce, according to Gossel. "I do not believe it has any impact on staffing," she said.

Gossel said she needed approvals from the Army to release more details about the contract for the infrared warning technology, and that the government shutdown was holding up those efforts.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

dsolomon@newstote.com


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