Beaufort base sets sights on housing new Joint Strike Fighter jet

As defense giant Lockheed Martin continues work on the F-35 Lightning II, questions remain about the role Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort will play when it gets the next generation of fighter jets.

The jets will replace the F/A-18 Hornets now flown by pilots at the air station, but officials said they have not been told whether the base will be an F-35 training ground, maintain the operational squadrons currently housed at Fightertown, or a combination of the two.

The air station currently houses 31 F-18s, including those of the base's lone Naval squadron. Each jet is worth about

$29 million.

"While the exact fielding plan has yet to be determined, we have already begun posturing MCAS Beaufort to be prepared to receive this next-generation air frame," said Capt. James Jarvis, the air station's public affairs chief.

Though the specifics still are unknown, Jarvis said there is no doubt the air station will house the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter.

Last month, Congress agreed to pay defense giant Lockheed Martin $6.3 billion to continue work on the F-35. Lockheed is the lead contractor on the project, with the jet's engines being built by United Technologies'Pratt and Whitney unit or General Electric.

The F-35 is predicted by defense experts to be the costliest arms program in U.S. history. According to the Pentagon, it will cost almost $300 billion to develop and buy about 2,440 planes, which include variants of the jet for the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy. The Navy and Marine Corps are scheduled to receive 680 jets.

The Marine Corps likely will begin receiving the F-35B, the variant of the plane being constructed specifically for the Corps, in 2010, said John Kent, Lockheed Martin spokesman.

Kent said the Corps would have enough of the planes to conduct combat missionswith the F-35B in 2012.

Unlike the other two versions of the jet, the F-35B will have vertical take-off and landing capability.

Kent said the company already has begun test flights of the jet at its Fort Worth, Texas, testing ground, and it is undergoing modifications.

"We will have the jet in full-up vertical take-off and landing by early next year," he said.

The F-35B underwent its maiden test flight in June, but all take-offs and landings so far have been conventional.

The jet's arrival in Beaufort County could lead to an economic boost for the area, said Kim Statler, executive director of the Lowcountry Economic Network. Thenonprofit network owns an industrial park near the air station that she hopes will house businesses to support the jet.

"What we've seen elsewhere with the arrival of major air installations like this is an increase in ancillary development around it, and that's what we're expecting with the F-35," she said.