Local officials fear increased scrutiny of defense spending in Washington and delays in flight tests of the Marine Corps' newest jet could affect the fighter's future at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Last month, a bipartisan task force convened by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., released a report that identified nearly $1 trillion in possible budget savings if the Pentagon budget was pared back through 2020. A portion of those savings would come from reducing the amount contractors like Lockheed Martin are paid.
Included in the report was a recommendation to save more than $9.8 billion by halting production of the Joint Strike Fighter and allowing the Navy and Marine Corps to purchase more F-18 Hornets, the plane the service currently flies.
At $382 billion, the Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, program is the highest-cost arms project in U.S. history.
Despite those project savings, some in Congress continue to support the new jet.
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said canceling or delaying the program would "put America at risk."
"I have faith in our military leaders, and that's who I'm counting on to put the contractors' feet to the fire," said Wilson, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Beaufort County.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Garry Parks, chairman of Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee, said talks of cuts to the program are cause for concern locally.
"There's certainly a lot of discussion with an emphasis on reeling in defense spending," Parks said. "That makes it a lot more ominous."
The new fighter jets, which cost $90 million each, will replace the F-18s flown at MCAS Beaufort. The F-35 is the first fixed-wing aircraft purchased by the Marine Corps in more than 20 years.
Concerns over the program's future have also fueled heated competition between local officials and their counterparts near MCAS Cherry Point, N.C., over 13 new JSF squadrons.
A Navy report released in June recommended basing two pilot training squadrons and three active-duty squadrons at MCAS Beaufort.
The report recommended basing eight active-duty squadrons at MCAS Cherry Point.
North Carolina officials say they are lobbying the Navy for a larger chunk of the squadrons to ensure that potential cuts to the program won't affect their base.
If the Navy's recommendation is approved in December, MCAS Beaufort would undergo $351 million in renovations and receive all 88 of its jets before construction began at Cherry Point.
Carlotta Ungaro, president and CEO of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Cherry Point is worried, with good reason.
"You always have to be concerned given the current political climate," Ungaro said. "If there are cuts, they will likely be to the back end of the program."
To complicate matters, the jet's general contractor, Lockheed Martin, has experienced delays in flight testing the Marine Corps' variant of the fighter, the F-35B, which has short take-off and vertical landing capabilities.
The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram reported last week that the four F-35Bs undergoing testing in Maryland had completed just 77 percent of their scheduled flights this year. Only one of the jets, the newspaper said, had made successful vertical landings.
Versions being made for the Navy and Air Force completed test flights at twice the planned rate, the paper reported.
Lockheed Martin spokesman John Kent attributed problems with the Marine Corps version to what he called "component-level failures," which he defined as issues with smaller parts of the plane. He expressed confidence those problems would be addressed quickly.
Kent also said the company isn't concerned about possible cuts to the program and is focused on delivering the first F-35Bs to the Marine Corps starting next year.
"We have continually received bipartisan support in Congress," Kent said. "Those opinions (to trim defense spending)are always going to be out there."
The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram contributed to this report.