U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham urged President Donald Trump on Monday to choose defense contractor Lockheed Martin to build the next training fighter jet for the U.S. Air Force as part of a pitch to secure the contract.
In front of Lockheed executives and elected officials, Graham called it a "good deal" for the U.S. and taxpayers.
"Buy these planes," Graham directed at Trump while at Lockheed's Greenville facility at the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center, or SCTAC, formerly the Donaldson Center.
"I want to rebuild the military, I want to spend more on the military, but I also want to get value for our money. This investment, to me, is about as sound as the Air Force can make."
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Lockheed Martin and three other aerospace companies, that include Boeing/SAAB, have for months been engaged in a bidding war hoping to win a contract, 350 jets, to build a new training jet for the U.S. Air Force.
A contract win for Lockheed would mean $8 billion to $10 billion in business and roughly 200 additional new competitive-wage jobs over the next 16 years at SCTAC. The Greenville facility already employs roughly 450 people.
Lockheed Martin entered the U.S. Air Force Advanced Training Pilot Program last year with its T-50A fighter jet, developed with Korea Aerospace Industries, or KAI, to train pilots to fly F-16, F-22 and F-35 fighter planes.
The Air Force's current jet trainer, the T-38 Talon, has been used since the 1950s, and is not capable of the performance needed to train pilots to fly fifth generation planes, officials said.
Lockheed already has two T-50A fighter jets at its Greenville facility, with more than 100 hours of documented flying time.
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Officials said there are 140 T-50 planes, which the T-50A is based off of, already training more than 2,000 South Korean pilots and logging more than 142,000 flight hours.
Graham and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, who attended Lockheed Martin's event Monday aimed to promote exposure of the T-50A, said a contract win for Lockheed would show a stronger partnership with South Korea, given North Korea's continued threat level.
In addition to growing concern over the communist party's increase in nuclear capabilities, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile off its coast last week ahead of Trump and Chinese President Xi Junping's meeting.
"We have threats that are just unprecedented. The American people should know the level of threat (of North Korea)," Wilson said in front of KAI President and CEO Sung-Yong Ha and Ahn Ho-young, South Korea's ambassador to the U.S.
Graham said if the Air Force decides to buy Lockheed Martin jets it will be a wise use of taxpayer dollars. He, along with Wilson, said the contract would be a true testament to South Carolina and Greenville workers.
"It will get us to where we need to go in terms of having the finest Air Force in the world, continuing to have the finest Air Force in the world, and be a good purchase. It'd be a good price," he said.
Lockheed Martin entered its proposal for the training competition on March 30, which consisted of hundreds of pages and dozens of binders and CD's – all put on display Monday in a glass-covered case.
Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin aeronautics, called the contractor's proposal ahead of schedule, low cost and low risk.
"The T-50A uniquely balances maturity, with fifth generation capability, which will deliver ahead of schedule and on cost," he said. "Simply put, we are ready now."
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If Lockheed is awarded the contract, the jet's fuselage, wings and tail would be assembled in a Sacheon, South Korean factory, then shipped in two containers through the Panama Canal and delivered at the Port of Charleston, The Greenville News reported.
The rest of the plane, which includes the cockpit, interior and software, would be assembled in Greenville. Lockheed would fly T-50A test runs out of its Greenville facility for the length of the contract.
A contract is expected to be awarded by the end of this year or early 2018. Dale Bennett, executive vice president of Lockheed Rotary and Mission Systems, said while the award of the contract is important, it's "about training the pilot."
"We've trained over 29,000 pilots in the world in 25 different countries," the University of South Carolina graduate said. "So we know how to do this. We know the art of learning."
Future of F-16 in Greenville
Should Lockheed Martin win the U.S. Air Force contract to build new trainer jets, the estimated 200 potential jobs that win could mean would be added onto an expected 250 jobs aimed at F-16 production in Greenville.
The company confirmed last month its plans to shift F-16 production from its Fort Worth, Texas facility to Greenville in the next two years after the last F-16 in Fort Worth is delivered in September.
The shift makes way for expanded F-35 Joint Strike Fighter production in Fort Worth.
Last month, news reports indicated the Trump administration plans to move forward with the sale of 19 F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain, despite previous administration concerns over the country's human rights.
The State Department declined to comment on the sale to The News.
Rod Mclean, vice president and general manager of the F-16/F-22 Integrated Fighter Group, said Lockheed hopes to secure the contract with Bahrain by the first of next year given the sale's support from Congress.