Aerospace firms fly on defense dollars

Since President Reagan took office in 1981, stock prices for many American aerospace companies have roughly doubled, even though the market for commercial aircraft has been a mere trickle for the past four years.

The fortunes of the nation's armsmakers - chiefly aerospace companies - have been considerably enhanced by Reagan defense budgets.

This has been especially important in southern California, where 22 percent of the Pentagon's budget was spent last year. Just to build the B-1 bomber, a project Mr. Reagan revived after President Carter had quashed it, Rockwell International has hired 14,000 people in the Los Angeles area alone. The B-1 will create 50,000 jobs overall by 1987.

For an industry that owes the bloom in its rosy cheeks to politics, rather than economics, aerospace firms are making little apparent fuss over the presidential race this November. A Mondale win would probably send their stock prices tumbling, but their rapidly rising income from the Pentagon is already more or less established for the next few years.

It is in the years beyond 1987 that this presidential race could make a difference to defense spending.

Those will be critical years for the aerospace industry, which does about 55 percent of its business with the Pentagon. Even under a Reagan administration, defense programs will be tapering off by then. And even under a Mondale administration, the industry will have thrived for some eight years of robust growth in defense spending.

''What the (political) parties are saying in the late '86-87 period about defense will be critical,'' says Bank of America senior economist Jeanette Garretty.

The campaign rhetoric presents a clear contrast. Reagan speaks of the need for stronger defense, and Mondale speaks of the need to cut back the cost of the arms race. But few close observers of defense contracts would expect a Mondale presidency to spend much less on defense than a second-term Reagan administration would.

But Mondale might well spend his defense money differently.

Like Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale stresses defense readiness and conventional war-fighting capability. This translates into spending more on supplies and operations. Reagan has stressed the buying of strategic weapons and defense technology. This means more spending on costly weapons hardware.

The Reagan approach generally is more profitable to aerospace companies. As a result, industry profits up 33 percent last year, are rising about 23 percent this year and are projected to rise 26 percent next year, according to Joe Campbell, aerospace analyst with Paine Webber stock brokerage.

''The key threat to the industry,'' economist Garretty says, ''is not so much a squeeze on the defense budget. ... The real concern is whole projects being cut. Then the revenues and jobs stop abruptly.''

Mondale opposes three current defense programs: the B-1 bomber, the MX missile system, and the ''Star Wars'' antimissile satellites. Mondale probably couldn't stop the B-1. But analysts say the MX is vulnerable. Congress is more divided on this project, and a president could probably halt it. The ''Star Wars'' research is even more dependent on a second Reagan term, they say.

Although Reagan accelerated defense spending, it was Carter who turned around the post-Vietnam decline in defense spending and launched the current surge. Reagan accelerated it by more than double.

Now the commercial aircraft market is beginning to revive, and the aerospace industry will move further back toward civilian business. ''Commercial work is generally more attractive,'' says analyst Campbell. ''To be too dependent on defense is to sign up for the kind of future you don't really want.''

Next: Does defense spending weaken the US economy?

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