The U.S. Air Force earlier this month declared the first squadron of new F-35A Lightning II fighter jets finally ready for combat. But don’t expect to see the stealthy “fifth generation” jets show up at Midlands’ bases any time soon.
Although the Marines have an F-35B training squadron stationed in Beaufort, both Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover were passed over for the first round of what will be the nation’s all-purpose, front-line fighter for the Air Force, Marines and Navy.
And the program has been plagued with delays, with production seven years behind schedule, according to numerous reports.
“We’re just waiting,” said Steven Creech, a former Sumter mayor who represents that city on the S.C. Military Base Task Force. “In the meantime, we’re just patching up (Shaw’s F-16s) and flying.”
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The F-35, along with the F-22 stealth fighter jet, will replace practically every fixed wing combat aircraft in the United States’ military during the next 30 years, including 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 new aircraft are scheduled to eventually replace the F-16s at Shaw – the largest F-16 wing in the country – as well as the F-16s at McEntire and the F/A-18s at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
But so far, only one F-35 Air Force squadron has been activated and declared combat ready. It is stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
The next Air Force F-35 combat squadron will go to Burlington Air National Guard Base in Vermont, which was chosen over McEntire and other Air National Guard bases in 2013.
Beaufort already has received one squadron of the F-35Bs – 16 aircraft – a training unit for Marine pilots. That number will eventually swell to two training squadrons and two or three squadrons available for deployment, a total of up to 88 of the jets, perhaps by 2025, said Capt. Clay Groover, spokesman for the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort.
“But the plan changes frequently,” he said.
Future Air Force squadrons will go to units at Eieleson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska, and RAF base Lakenheath in England.
The Midlands’ first shot at the jets could be McEntire, because the Air Force’s fifth and sixth locations for the jets will be Air National Guard units and the seventh will be a reserve unit. However, Air Force officials have not said when those units will be named, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanec said.
“It could be years before they go to the next National Guard location,” she said. “And it could be next year before we even narrow down the candidates.”
Col. Nick Gentile, commander of the S.C. Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing, known as the “Swamp Foxes,” said he had no additional information about the rollout of the F-35s.
“(But) our combat-proven track record of 70-plus years of single-seat fighter operations ... (We are) optimistic that the South Carolina Air National Guard will be a strong candidate as one of the two ANG units to be selected in the next F-35 basing selection process,” he said.
The F-35 jets are called “fifth generation” because of their high level of stealth, high-performance airframes and advanced computers and avionics – as opposed to “fourth generation” fighters that are not stealthy.
The Pentagon has placed orders for 2,443 of the jets, which cost up to $100 million each depending on the model. It is the most expensive military weapons system in history.
Production of the planes has been plagued with delays, cost overruns and critics. According to the Government Accounting Office and reported by The New York Times, the program is seven years behind schedule.
Three models have been developed by Lockheed Martin for the three branches that fly them:
▪ The F-35A for the Air Force, the nimblest and least expensive model designed for take-offs from standard runways.
▪ The F-35B for the Marines, which has vertical and short runway take-off capability.
▪ The F-35C for the Navy, which has larger wings and is more rugged to handle the rigors of taking off and landing on aircraft carriers.
Job – Multi-purpose fighter jet
Prime contractor – Lockheed Martin
Thrust – 43,000 pounds
Wingspan – 35 feet
Length – 51 feet
Payload – 18,000 pounds
Speed – Mach 1.6 (1,200 miles per hour)
Range – 1,350 miles
Crew – One pilot