A P-8A Poseidon, assigned to the “Mad Foxes” of Patrol Squadron (VP) Five from Okinawa, Japan, flies over the Philippine Sea.

A P-8A Poseidon, assigned to the “Mad Foxes” of Patrol Squadron (VP) Five from Okinawa, Japan, flies over the Philippine Sea. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dustin Knight

This Kansas Aircraft-Parts Supplier Is Flying High on Secret Military Projects

A longtime maker of airliner parts, Spirit Aerosystems is finding new work in the defense sector.

LE BOURGET, France — A boom in secret projects and military work is fueling an expansion in defense business for at Spirit Aerosystems, a Kansas-based company that is a top supplier to aerospace manufacturers Boeing, Airbus, Sikorsky, and Bell.

Spirit is touting its fast-paced commercial culture as a resource for major defense companies looking to keep up with the Pentagon’s new demands to speed up weapons development.

“Because of our commercial focus, we’re very fast at getting into production and productionizing whatever we design,” Duane Hawkins, president of the Spirit’s Defense and Fabrications divisions, said during an interview at the Paris Air Show. “We see that as our real core strength and leverage we have.”

Automating sections of production lines and lean manufacturing techniques have been among the ways Spirit is speeding production. The company plans to grow its business organically, through acquisitions, and from new defense business, Hawkins said.

Spirit’s classified business is growing as major defense firms, including Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and United Technologies, are touting increases in secret U.S. government deals. The Pentagon has grown even more closed-mouthed since the 2018 publication of the National Defense Strategy, so as not to clue China or Russia in on weapons projects.

While Spirit might not be a household name, it builds key parts of Boeing and Airbus planes, such as the 737’s fuselage and parts of the A320’s wings. Hawkins said Spirit has “the largest fabrication capability in the country and maybe the world.” The company builds 52 737 fuselages a month.

But the company also has a defense side that dates back to World War II when it built parts for Boeing’s B-29, B-47, and B-52 bombers. Today, it makes the fuselage of the P-8 Poseidon submarine hunter and Sikorsky CH-53K Super Stallion helicopter. It makes parts of the KC-46 Pegasus tanker fuselage and wing and builds the fuselage of the Bell V-280 Valor, a tilt-rotor prototype being evaluated by the U.S. Army.

It also is a key supplier to Northrop Grumman, the company building the U.S. Air Force’s new B-21 stealth bomber. The Air Force requested $3 billion for the project in its 2020 budget request, which Congress is reviewing on Capitol Hill. Since the program is classified, Spirit’s share of B-21 work is not publicized.

The company has added “several hundred” engineers for its CH-53 and B-21 work, Hawkins said. The lull in new-design commercial airliners has also allowed Spirit to shift engineers into defense work and get them the required security clearances.

Over the past two years, the company has also begun doing machine shop and metal work for defense companies and others. Hawkins said the contract value for that work is “not significant” right now.