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Utah’s defense and aerospace industry is booming amid global conflicts

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings stage for combat training sorties at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, July 14, 2020.
R. Nial Bradshaw
75th Air Base Wing Public Affair
U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings stage for combat training sorties at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, July 14, 2020.

The business of war and peace is big in Utah. The U.S. Department of Defense spent $6.3 billion on defense contracts in the state in 2021. And, that was before Russia invaded Ukraine and war broke out in Gaza.

47G is Utah's defense and aerospace association and President and CEO Aaron Starks told KUER that business is booming, and the state is reaping financial benefits to the tune of “anywhere between $20 and $25 billion of economic impact in the state every year.”

Defense Department data show that in 2021, most defense contracts in Utah were for supplies and equipment. Starks said Hill Air Force Base is key to that; employing thousands of people who work there in various capacities, including maintenance and support programs for F-22, F-16, A-10 and F-35 aircraft.

“Hill Air Force Base has become a pivotal player in the defense supply chain,” said Stark.

Plenty more is at play in Utah’s defense and aerospace sector, including the intercontinental ballistic missile program, ICBM.

“We have companies like Northrop Grumman who have won the contract to do a lot of work on that. Other subcontractors include Lockheed Martin and Boeing.”

Supplying Ukraine

Then there’s the agreement with Ukraine signed in 2023.

“Utah was the first state after the war broke out to go and visit Ukraine, and we took about 20 defense companies to the country,” Starks said. “We were able to meet with the Ministry of Defense and Volodymyr Zelenskyy.”

As a result, Starks said Utah now supplies much of the technology that Ukraine is using in the war with Russia. “For example, drone technologies to protect their borders, weaponry, munitions and other capabilities that Ukraine needs to conclude the war and rebuild the country.”

Starks said that the Memorandum of Understanding has secured around $100 million in contracts, which he called significant for Utah’s size.

But the ultimate goal, he said, is to help Ukraine build its own capabilities.

“That's in the United States’ best interest. That's in our companies’ best interest. So we do that through tech transfer programs, through training.”

Israel-Hamas War

When it comes to the conflict in Gaza, Starks said 47G is not involved. “We have had no involvement in the war with Gaza, both on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side. We haven't completed any trade missions to the region as an organization.”

According to a LinkedIn post in December 2023, a representative of 47G did attend a talk by the Consul General of Israel hosted by World Trade Center Utah. In the post, the organization said Israel and Utah “share a special friendship,” and that “there are many opportunities ahead to innovate on aerospace and defense technology.”

Starks did tell KUER that defense contractors in Utah could be selling weapons and defense systems to the U.S. government, which in turn could provide weapons in the conflict.

“It’s absolutely possible and very plausible that that is happening. Israel is one of our greatest allies and has been for decades. So, when we incubate, develop and go to market with a technology that's important to the Department of Defense, and they buy it, it's entirely up to them how they employ that technology.”

Student protesters and over 160 faculty members at the University of Utah had called for the school to start the process of a divestment strategy from those profiting from the war in Gaza, Starks said he supports the right to protest, but I would also ask that we bring down the temperature a little bit on college campuses.”

He said people should understand what they are protesting and who they’re asking to divest out of.

“For example, 47G is an organization that convenes, promotes and advocates for companies in the energy, space, critical minerals, materials, aerospace, defense, cyber, space exploration. We're on the forefront of cutting-edge technology in many, many areas of the economy. And a lot of it is changing the way that everyday Americans live their lives outside of missiles, tanks, artillery and weapons.”

47G is involved with nine universities and technical colleges in Utah. Starks said those partnerships train qualified personnel for the defense and aerospace sectors.

“Our industry needs engineers, manufacturers, frontline workers. So the nature of our work is to convene universities to put forth the biggest ideas and the best ideas, to help incubate talent.”

Mining Merger

Utah’s aerospace and defense association is also broadening its horizons on the mining front, recently merging with Utah's Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Initiative, UAMMI. Starks said the move will greatly benefit the sector.

Utah offers 40 of the 50 critical minerals identified by the federal government. So we can pull minerals out of Utah, put them into advanced materials that then go on aircraft and that's an extraordinary asset for a state to have.” He added that the merger will see the group mining for minerals key to the defense and aerospace industry while supporting the expansion of mining companies involved in that process.

“I truly believe that over the next two decades, more of Utah's economy will be shaped by this industry than it will others.”

Corrected: June 6, 2024 at 1:04 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Corrected: June 4, 2024 at 1:39 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Aaron Starks surname in two instances.
Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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