Technical problems are delaying the deployment of the new F-35 warplanes overseas, but the U.S. Marines say the planes will still arrive at a Beaufort air station this summer.
Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort is scheduled to eventually host two training and three active F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter squadrons that will replace the F-18 Hornets currently flown out of the station. Work on new facilities to host the jets was completed in January.
The F-35 has endured an expensive, tortuous history, as skyrocketing production costs and several bad test flights plagued its development until the entire project was placed on probation in 2011. Since then, the Defense Department said costs have stabilized, and it predicts the planes will be combat-ready by June 2015. But a Government Accountability Office report released this week warned that software problems threaten to delay any combat deployment for up to 13 additional months.
But Marine Air Group-31 (MAG-31) commander Col. Bill Lieblein said the first training aircraft from VFMA 501 squadron will still be transferred to Beaufort this summer. “The aircraft will come in that June timeframe either way,” he said. “That (delay) is when they’ll be operational, when the software in the aircraft will be able to support them going to Afghanistan, or something like that.”
Lieblein made the comments shortly after meeting with the South Carolina Military Base Task Force to brief them on the F-35s’ arrival. VFMA 501 is currently stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
Lieblein said between 70-88 planes should eventually be stationed in Beaufort, which he expected to occur gradually. “We’ll start full normal flying operations in October,” he said. “It’s a very slow, gradual ramp-up to about 20-25 (planes) when we get both training squadrons there, and the other squadrons. So we’re still flying the F-18 for some time.”
The training center will also train international pilots once it is operational. Lieblein said British pilots are currently training with the unit in Florida.