F-35 Fighter Contract Vital to Colorado’s Defense Economy

Originally published here at the Denver Business Journal on November 25, 2016

The vital role that the defense sector plays in Colorado’s economy could expand in the near future if elected leaders, regardless of party or ideology, stand up for a new, fifth-generation jet fighter that already has a solid economic footprint in our state. Colorado business leaders recently learned firsthand how critically important this is when we had the rare opportunity to “fly” the cockpit simulator of the F-35 Lightning II.

The F-35 is the fifth-generation fighter jet that is enhancing America’s ability to own the skies. Ball Aerospace in Westminster is home to an exciting high-tech manufacturing facility that manufactures and tests antenna systems for the fighter. The company expects to manufacture nearly 50,000 antennas for the program in the next 25 years.  

We civilian business types, whose closest engagement with a jet fighter was the models we played with as kids, gained a deep understanding, from a pilot’s perspective, of how this aircraft is the most lethal and survivable strike fighter jet ever built.

We took two important lessons from this landmark event. First, how vital it is that America makes the F-35 a defense-funding priority in order to have an agile asset that can literally create air dominance in any environment and, as a result, meet the growing and evolving threats the nation faces in the 21st century. Equally important, we were reminded how Colorado’s energetic and expanding economy is intertwined with a strong and growing defense sector. Indeed, there are strong and sustained efforts to advocate for basing some of the new fighters here in Colorado.

Many Coloradans aren’t aware of the broad and deep economic benefit that Colorado derives from Department of Defense activity. In fact, adding up direct and indirect jobs, defense is the third-largest industry in the state, matching agriculture. Total DOD-related employment represents 5.2 percent of the state workforce, or 170,000 jobs, accounting for $11.6 billion in total labor earnings. This accounts for 6.5 percent of the Gross Regional Product (GRP).

The F-35 program is no exception.  Throughout the state, the fighter has 22 suppliers in Colorado and supports 750 direct and indirect jobs, providing an annual economic impact of $60 million throughout the state.

One of the key aspects of Colorado’s attractiveness for military-oriented jobs such as those at Ball Aerospace is our growing and well-deserved reputation as a magnet for high-tech workers. While many assume that the smaller tech startups are the most important magnet for these workers, defense-oriented jobs are attracted by – and attractive to – these men and women. A study released last year by the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs detailed the vibrant synergy between direct military activity and related companies that work with the defense sector. The report specifically cited the “crossflow” between DOD and private industry and calling it a self-reinforcing relationship that concentrates talent, productive capacity and innovation.”

The report also underscored that Colorado’s private sector technology based companies provide a stable and reliable base for DOD that helps weather the ups and downs of the lifecycles of products and technologies.

Colorado is a vital, fertile location not only for defense jobs but for private-sector companies and entrepreneurs who work with the military. This is the fruit of years of bipartisan work to demonstrate that Colorado is second-to-none as a location to grow high-quality jobs at exciting, innovative companies. With programs such as the F-35 and other cutting-edge defense assets earning support, Colorado can continue to be an indispensable player in America’s national security – to the lasting benefit of our nation and our economy. 

Jeff Wasden, President and CEO
Colorado Business Roundtable (COBRT)