Earlier this month, the Navy moved forward with plans to revamp an air base in Beaufort to prepare for a new type of plane. That was a welcome batch of good news for Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, which until recently was worried the planes might not come at all.
The new F-35Bs were nearly cancelled by Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year after repeated technical problems delayed their development and hiked up their costs. However, at the last minute, Gates put the program on a two-year probationary period instead. The probation gives manufacturer Lockheed-Martin more time to justify the plane’s reliability.
MCAS Beaufort will be the future location of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training center. The Navy also plans for Beaufort to host three new squadrons of the planes. On June 7, the Navy announced Hensel Phillips Construction of Colorado had been awarded a contract to build the $70 million training facility. The new construction includes a training and simulator facility and a multi-story hangar.
Congressman Joe Wilson, who represents Beaufort, said that was good news for both the program and the region.
There were some questions about the capability of the plane, particularly the safety and the different aspects of advanced technology. The good news is that Secretary Gates did put it on probation. It was not cancelled. It is proceeding.
Wilson serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
F-35Bs are a special type of fighter plane designed for the Marines that can take off and land vertically, instead of needing a runway. However, the plane has been struggling mightily during its development, which originally began in 2001. Its massive costs (including some speculation it could top $1 trillion eventually) combined with a mixed record in test flights resulted in the president’s debt commission recommending the program’s termination last year. Instead, Gates ordered the probationary period in January.
Wilson said the probation seems to be working, as the project has quickly moved forward since January.
Their test points— these are metrics to determine the capabilities of the plane— are ahead of schedule. This is a real turnaround… this is very, very positive.
Lockheed-Martin has since made public its plans to fix the plane’s four main design flaws. You can see their proposal here. The company says the challenge will be finding ways to fix the problems without raising the project’s costs.
The delays mean MCAS Beaufort, which expected the planes to begin arriving by the end of 2014, will likely have to wait an additional two years.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is designed to replace current warplanes, which average about 25-to-30 years old and are approaching the end of their service lives. Military officials say a next-generation stealth fighter is necessary to stay ahead of China, which is working on a similar plane.