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Groundbreaking held for Northrop Grumman facility

MOSS POINT – It is a little known fact that Northrop Grumman (NG) Corp., which has headquarters in California, actually has more employees at its sectors in Mississippi, which include Ship Systems (the former Ingalls Shipbuilding), Information Technology, Mission Systems and Electronic Systems.

The synergy of collaboration with those NG groups was credited by Ron Sugar, NG chairman, CEO and president, with playing a major role in the recent decision to place employees from a fifth NG organization, Integrated Systems, in Jackson County. On April 13, county, state and federal dignitaries joined NG executives including Sugar to break ground on a new 39,000-square-foot facility that will be used to produce RQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for the U.S. Navy.

With the addition of the new Integrated Systems sector, five of the seven NG sectors will have employees based in Jackson County. Northrop Grumman currently has about 13,000 employees in Jackson County with most, about 12,500, employed at Ship Systems – the only NG sector that is based in Mississippi.

“It took vision and dedication to turn this important idea into reality,” Sugar said at groundbreaking ceremonies at the Trent Lott International Airport in Moss Point. “Opening this new facility means more than new jobs. The addition of this new Northrop Grumman facility in Moss Point will continue the process of bringing the men and women in our armed forces the best equipment possible, the platforms and systems that enable them to do their job and return home safely.”

Sugar said the remarkable Fire Scout represents the future of warfare as part of a vital defense system. The Fire Scout removes pilots from harm`s way while allowing reconnaissance that can save the lives of troops on the ground. Fire Scouts can also be equipped with weapons for precision strikes. Sugar referred to those as “a Fire Scout with attitude.”

Initially 30 high-tech manufacturing jobs are expected at the new Unmanned Systems Center in Jackson County. NG expects that figure to increase to about 65 in the next few years. The first helicopter drones are expected to roll off the assembly line in early 2005.

Proximity to customers and the availability of a trained workforce were also credited as being deciding factors in locating the $5-million facility in Jackson County.

“This site provides an opportunity for Northrop Grumman to be closer to its U.S. Army and Navy UAV customers, to take advantage of the local, well-trained workforce that has long supported the corporation and its Navy programs, and to operate a cost-competitive manufacturing center that can expand to accommodate future growth in the company`s unmanned systems business,” said Marty Dandridge, executive vice president of Integrated Systems.

Dandridge said the Trent Lott International Airport location allows NG to exploit the resources and systems-engineering skills at the company`s other sectors in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs. He added that the rural airport is an ideal location for flying and testing vertical takeoff and landing UAVs.

Dandridge said the roles for UAV systems are evolving rapidly. Historically, UAVs have been used primarily to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support.

“Tomorrow`s UAVs will offer expanded ISR and communication capabilities for both military and homeland security missions,” he said. “We’re also going to see ISR, communications, and precision strike capabilities on a single platform. There is a world of change in front of us and I’m pleased that Mississippi, and especially Jackson County, will have a large role in that change.”

U.S. Rep Gene Taylor said that U.S. troops are facing an incredible challenge right now in Iraq. “It is my hope the Fire Scouts can be used to protect our troops in transit,” Taylor said. “This is the future of military aviation, particularly for reconnaissance. We need it right now in Iraq.”

U.S. Sen. Trent Lott said that attracting the new development to Jackson County symbolizes aggressive marketing of Mississippi as a good place to do business.

“But what this is really about is supporting our troops,” Lott said. “This will help our men and women who go into harms way have the least amount of exposure possible.”

George Freeland, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation, said NG`s decision to make a long-term, substantial investment in Jackson County is a positive reflection on the community and on the effectiveness of Jackson County`s united efforts to attract new investments.

“With these new facilities, Jackson County will be the home of the world`s leaders in both the building of ships and the production of unmanned aircraft,” Freeland said.

In addition to currently developing and producing the Fire Scout system for the Navy, NG Integrated Systems is also developing the Fire Scout as the Class IV unmanned aerial vehicle for the U.S. Army`s Future Combat System. The company produced and integrated the first Fire Scout units at its Unmanned Systems unit in San Diego, but will build all future Fire Scout production vehicles at the new Unmanned Systems Center in Jackson County.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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