Landing the Air Force's next-generation fighter - the F-35- likely will guarantee a long future for two Midlands bases and ensure thousands of jobs will stay in the area, military supporters say.
Their speculation is centered on a recent Air Force announcement that McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover and Sumter's Shaw Air Force Base are being considered for the first group of F-35s scheduled to roll off the production line beginning next decade.
"For both the Shaw and McEntire communities, it's good news all the way around," said George Patrick, executive coordinator of the S.C. Military Base Task Force.
The F-35, which has radar-evading stealth capabilities, is being built to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of F-16 fighters, first introduced in the mid-1970s.
The Air Force plans to find homes for 1,763 F-35s, but it has Shaw and McEntire on its "short list" of 11 bases that could receive the first 250 to 300 planes due to be delivered beginning in 2013.
Shaw and McEntire are among six bases being considered as operational bases, that is, they would fly daily missions from the installations. Five other bases are being considered for training.
With modifications, the F-35 also can be used by the Navy and Marine Corps.
As a result, the Lowcountry could be the home of F-35s if the Pentagon replaces F-18s based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The base has six squadrons of F-18s, twin-engine fighters. A decision on Beaufort is expected in 2012.
If Shaw and McEntire make the cut, it should lessen worries that the installations might be shuttered if the Pentagon decides to go through another round of base closings like it did in 2005.
"It would be another reason to keep the two open," said Ike McLeese, CEO of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and primary mover of community efforts to support McEntire and Fort Jackson.
Supporters of the bases said the same factors that favored Shaw and McEntire in 2005 were considered by Air Force leaders in compiling a "short list" for the F-35's future home. They include:
- The bases, about 20 miles apart, are close to the 12,400-acre Poinsett Weapons Range in Sumter County, as well as airspace training ranges over South Carolina, Georgia and the Atlantic Ocean.
- The bases enjoy strong public support, with local governments joining efforts to manage commercial and residential development near the bases.
- Infrastructure, including sun shades that cover planes parked on the ramp, already is in place to support F-35s.
Before the Air Force announces its final decision, environmental impact studies will have to be completed, and local communities might get an opportunity to weigh in.
The environmental studies will focus on noise, hazardous materials and impact of daily operations on the surrounding community, said Lt. Col. Keith Miller, the F-35 project officer for the 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire.
Noise tends to top the list of environmental concerns, and, so far, the results of studies have been mixed.
Like the F-16, the F-35 has just one engine, but it is considerably more powerful. The F-35 engine can generate 40,000 pounds of thrust, compared with the F-16's 23,700 pounds of thrust.
The F-35 "is nearly identical to the F-16s that we already fly. In practice, it will often be quieter due to reduced use of afterburner for takeoffs," Miller said.
One study by the Pentagon's Joint Strike Fighter Program Office and the fighter's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, found there wasn't much difference between the noise made by an F-35 and an F-16 during takeoff.
However, other studies have found the average person might perceive an F-35 to be two to three times louder than an F-16.
Meanwhile, Miller said, there are fewer hazardous materials involved in the F-35. Also, there's less chance that bombs and rockets can be unloaded because the plane carries weapons inside its fuselage instead of under the wings, as the F-16 does.
Supporters of McEntire and Shaw note that both bases provide thousands of jobs and have significant economic impact.
"This is our BMW," said retired Maj. Gen. Tom Olsen, chief of Sumter County's efforts to support Shaw, referring to the German automaker's Upstate plant.
Shaw brings about 5,800 military jobs and an additional 1,000 civilian jobs to the Sumter community. The base's total economic impact is about $1.15 billion a year, according to the city's Department of Growth and Development.
McEntire has about 1,200 Air Force full- and part-time jobs. Its annual economic impact is $90 million, Miller said.
In a state with the nation's fifth-highest unemployment rate, hanging on to jobs is crucial, base supporters added.
There also is the possibility that having dozens of F-35s based in the Midlands might prompt some vendors involved in the plane's construction and maintenance to move to the area, supporters said.
"I don't think we would see anything like a plant," Olsen said, "but we might have some specialized maintenance support."
While optimistic that their bases could be the home of the F-35, supporters said there is plenty of work that needs to be done.
"This is a vital step in the F-35 basing process," Miller said of the upcoming studies. "But we aren't at the finish line yet. Our success depends heavily on the continued support of our community and our political leaders."
Patrick, a retired S.C. Air National Guard major general, believes South Carolina's chances are strong.
"Hopefully, we'll have more good news down the road," Patrick said. "I'm a believer in this 'big Mo thing' - momentum."