In a $1.9-billion contract with NASA, Orbital Sciences Corp. delivers cargo to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Above, an Orbital Antares rocket is rolled out to the launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in 2012. (April 29, 2014)

With protracted federal budget cuts at the Pentagon and NASA on the horizon, aerospace companies across the nation are choosing to combine forces as they vie for fewer dollars and brace for the tough times ahead.

In the first quarter of this year, there were 56 merger and acquisition deals announced, according to Irvine aerospace investment bank Janes Capital Partners. This was a 14% increase from last year.

"We are on the cusp of a major merger wave in aerospace and defense," said Stephen Perry, managing director at Janes. "As budgets decline, it's very logical for these firms to go out looking for ways to combine businesses."

On Tuesday, two Washington, D.C.-area rocket makers — Alliant Techsystems Inc. and Orbital Sciences Corp. — announced plans to combine aerospace and defense units in a $5-billion merger.

The new company, called Orbital ATK Inc., is expected to employ 13,000 people in 17 states — about 1,000 of whom will be in California.

News of the deal was well received on Wall Street as investors snapped up shares of both companies. Alliant's stock was up 6.8%, or $9.40, to $148.22. Orbital's shares were up 16.5%, or $4.39, or $30.96.

Under the all-stock deal, Alliant shareholders will own about 54% of the combined company. It is to be completed by year's end.

It is the latest chapter of consolidation in the industry as companies look for ways to manage margins and squeeze out profit in an era of budget austerity. In recent years, various companies have been bought and sold in an attempt to boost earnings.

In December 2012, aerospace giant General Dynamics Corp. acquired engineering firm Applied Physical Sciences Corp. Last May, Japanese aircraft engine and missile maker Mitsubishi Heavy Industries finalized a deal for United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney Power Systems, another engine maker.

A merger between two iconic California rocket and missile companies, Rocketdyne and Aerojet, was also finalized last year.

As combat operations have come to an end in Iraq and Afghanistan, many in the defense industry believe contractors will be scrambling for work in the coming years.

After the Cold War ended two decades ago, military budgets were slashed. The excess capacity in the defense industry resulted in a barrage of mergers.

In 1993, then-Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry held a dinner, known as the "last supper," in which he warned the defense industry's top suppliers that the budget was going to shrink and that consolidation was essential to their survival.

In the years that followed, the number of aircraft makers dropped to three from eight, and the 13 missile manufacturers were reduced to four.

This time around, consolidation is more likely to involve larger mid-tier suppliers looking for access to new markets and an increase in efficiency, said Tom Captain, principal and vice chairman of the aerospace and defense practice at financial advisory firm Deloitte.

"There are too many companies chasing too few dollars," he said. "There's just not enough work to go around."

Captain also expects consolidation on the commercial side of the aerospace industry, but for different reasons. Jet makers such as Boeing Co. and Airbus are increasingly asking for concessions and price reductions from suppliers.

To deal with this pressure, the commercial supply chain will consolidate over the next few years, Captain said in Deloitte's 2014 global aerospace and defense industry outlook.

Orbital and Alliant have a 25-year history of collaboration on various programs. The new rocket company will manufacture an array of hardware that includes space launch vehicles, tactical missiles and satellites.

Alliant's aerospace group is a top producer of solid rocket propulsion systems and a supplier of military and commercial aircraft structures. In addition, the company has a stake in NASA's plans to build Space Launch System, a heavy-launch rocket capable of sending astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit by 2025.

Alliant manufactures the five-segment solid rocket boosters. At 153 feet tall, these would be the largest solid rocket motors ever to fly.

But NASA has not provided specifics on where the nation will travel next in the solar system and when exactly it will conduct such missions, which has caused critics to question whether the project will ever get off the ground.

Orbital, based in Dulles, Va., manufactures more than half a dozen small- and medium-class rockets, as well as satellites, and delivers cargo to astronauts aboard the International Space Station in a $1.9-billion contract with NASA.

The merger of the two businesses went beyond budget cuts and will result in a more streamlined company, said David W. Thompson, Orbital's president and chief executive, who will head up the new firm.

For instance, the two companies, operating independently, subcontract about 50% of parts, he said. Through the merger, that number will be cut in half.

"There's wider range we can do together," Thompson said. The new company will deliver "more affordable space, defense and aviation systems to our existing customers and be strongly positioned to expand."

william.hennigan@latimes.com