Some of the state’s political, business and military leaders - from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham to Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin, got an up-close look at the nation’s new, stealthy $100 million F-35 fighter jet on Wednesday - at least the cockpit.
The Lockheed Martin company, led by national F-35 project director Steve Callaghan, showcased the Lightning II, as the jet is called, mobile cockpit at the South Carolina State Museum.
Graham said the new “fifth generation” fighter will give the United States and its allies air superiority against all enemies, be they terrorist states or superpowers like Russia and China.
“I don’t want a fair fight,” said Graham, a Seneca Republican who is running for re-election and has an 18-point lead in the polls. “When we deploy our military, I want it to be overwhelming. I want it to be decisive and end as soon as possible.”
The F-35, along with the F-22 stealth fighter jet, will replace practically every fixed wing combat aircraft in the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines over the next 30 years, including the Cold War-era aircraft such as the Air Force F-16 fighter, the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet and the Marines’ EA-6B Prowler and AV-8B Harrier.
The Pentagon has placed orders for 2,443 of the jets, whose price should reduce to $85 million apiece when full production ramps up, Callaghan said.
The new aircraft are scheduled toeventually replace the F-16s at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter - the largest F-16 wing in the country, the F-16s at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover and the F/A-18s Marine Air Station Beaufort.
Beaufort already has received one squadron of the F-35s - a training unit for Marine pilots, and that number will swell to two training squadrons and three squadrons available for deployment, a total of up to 88 of the jets.
In December, McEntire was passed over for the first squadron of National Guard Air Force F-35s, which will be based at a National Guard base in Burlington, Vt.
Shaw was also passed over for the first training squadrons in favor of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., and the first operational squadron slated for Hill Air Force Base, Utah in 2015.
Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek, in a telephone interview from her office in the Pentagon, told The State that future basing decisions won’t be made anytime soon.
“Shaw and McEntire will be considered in subsequent rounds as well as other installations,” she said. “But we are still several years out from starting the next round.”
Callaghan said that present day F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18 fighters are excellent against targets without advanced air defenses - like the Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq, which are presently being bombed by an F-16 squadron from Shaw. But the wars of the future against advanced targets, perhaps against highly developed countries, will require full, radar-eluding stealth.
Today’s fighters can’t be upgraded with stealth, Callaghan said. “You can’t sprinkle magic dust on them.”
Graham said that basing the F-35s at Shaw, Beaufort and McEntire would make those bases “BRAC-proof,” he said, referring to the next round of base relocation and closings, presently targeted for 2017.
However, state military advocates said Graham, who attended the event with Republican Congressmen Joe Wilson of Lexington and Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land, might have “overstated” the security of the bases, even with the F-35s.
“They can move planes where ever they want to whenever they want to,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. William “Dutch” Holland of Sumter, who heads that county’s base support organization and is a former commander of U.S. Air Force Central based at Shaw.
The F-35 comes in three models:
+ The F-35A for the Air Force, the nimblest and least expense model designed for take-offs from standard runways.
+ The F-35B for the Marines, which has vertical and short runway take-off capability.
+ And the F-35C for the Navy, which has larger wings and more is more rugged to handle of the rigors of taking off and landings on aircraft carriers.
Mulvaney, who district includes Shaw, noted that six South Carolina companies supply parts for F-35, pumping $48 million in the state’s economy each year, and that number should grow as production grows.
“South Carolina is playing a big role in the plane right now,” he said. “And $48 million is a big deal for us.”