N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue and officials with Lockheed Martin made a stop Wednesday in Charlotte to tout the economic benefits of the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, which is set to become the armed forces’ new workhorse warplane.
The F-35 program has been criticized recently by Pentagon officials for its high cost, estimated this year at $1.5 trillion to build and operate the planes over the coming 50-year period. The Air Force’s new chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, told reporters last month that costs for the program need to come down.
At the Carolinas Aviation Museum at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Wednesday, Perdue said the program also is under threat from the automatic “sequestration” cuts to defense spending, which are set to kick in if lawmakers can’t reach a compromise to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff next year. A congressional appropriations committee report this month estimated the F-35 program would lose $1 billion next year under those cuts.
“What that would mean would probably be massive delays or the end to the F-35,” said Perdue. She said there are $45 million worth of contracts for F-35 suppliers in North Carolina, supporting an estimated 500 jobs. That’s a small slice of the state’s estimated $23.5 billion of military spending, but is expected to increase as the program continues.
The F-35 promises a wide range of new capabilities, from its Mach 1.6 speed to its super-stealthy design, and a helmet display system that will let pilots “see” through the plane by using cameras mounted on the aircraft. It is slated to replace aging planes that the military has relied on for decades, such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the A-10 Warthog and the AV-8 Harrier jump jet.
Danny Conroy, one of the directors of the Lockheed Martin program, said the new F-35 planes are vital because the average age of aircraft in the military is 22 years.
“Probably not many of you have a car that old,” said Conroy. “That’s ancient. It’s time to upgrade those aircraft.”
He said the program cost is comparable to retrofitting and upgrading existing jets to approximate the F-35’s capability, so it makes more sense to buy new planes. “It’s as inexpensive as possible,” said Conroy, noting that the plane’s three variants would be shared by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The military is planning to buy about 2,400 F-35s.
Air Force officials gave the program an unusually public rebuke last month, when Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program’s deputy executive officer, said the military’s relationship with Lockheed is “the worst I’ve ever seen,” according to reports. Bogdan also said problems with the helmet, software and logistics could delay the plane’s launch, and he told reporters that there will be no additional funding for the program.
The program is about a third of the way through flight tests, Conroy said. Tests will continue for three to four more years. Twenty of the planes have been delivered to the Air Force in Florida, where pilots are training. Lockheed Martin is in low-rate production, turning out anywhere from two to four F-35s in a month.
That rate will eventually increase to about 17 or 18 planes a month, Conroy said, comparable to the rate at which the F-16 was built.
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