High-level shakeup won't affect arrival of new fighter jets here, air station says

A shakeup atop the military's Joint Strike Fighter program will not affect the fighter jet's eventual arrival at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, local officials say.

Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen, air station spokesman, said the base will not be hindered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision Monday to replace Marine Maj. Gen. David R. Heinz and to withhold $614 million in performance fees from Lockheed-Martin, the project's lead contractor.

"Replacing program managers at that level should have no impact on us here in Beaufort," McMeen said. "The expected arrival of the F-35B to the East Coast is in the first quarter of 2014. We are planning to have the infrastructure ready for that arrival time period."

Gates announced Heinz's departure during a media briefing Monday to unveil the Pentagon's proposed $741 billion 2011 defense budget, which includes $10.7 billion for 43 F-35s. The budget still faces approval by Congress.

"The progress and performance of the F-35, over the last two years, has not been what it should, as a number of key goals and benchmarks were not met," Gates said, "One cannot absorb the additional costs that we have in this program and the delays without people being held accountable."

The jet is tied closely to the future of MCAS Beaufort, as the F-35 will replace all of the F/A-18 Hornets flown at Fightertown, the average age of which is about 18 years. The Marine Corps will receive 420 jets, all with vertical take-off and landing capability.

A report released later this year will detail how the Corps plans to divvy up more than a dozen JSF squadrons between MCAS Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina. The 13 squadrons include 10 operational squadrons, one reserve squadron and two training squadrons, according to the Corps.

Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter also is in the running to house the next-generation fighter jet.

Though not expected at MCAS Beaufort until 2014, the Corps could begin receiving its variant of the F-35 in December 2012.

"If for some reason there are delays, the Marine Corps has plans in place to ensure it meets all of its operational commitments," said Capt. Craig Thomas, Corps spokesman at Headquarters Marine Corps in Virginia.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-SC, said Heinz's firing was a "temporary hiccup."

"With any major program, you're going to have setbacks," said Wilson, who represents the state's 2nd Congressional District, which includes Beaufort County. "The program will get back on track, and I'm confident that the issues causing these delays can be addressed. This jet is so important to the defense of our nation."

A Pentagon report released in January showed that the F-35 flew just 16 of its 168 scheduled test flights in 2009, and the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram reported flight testing is at least six months behind schedule.

A spokesman for Lockheed-Martin could not be reached for comment, but in a statement Monday, the company said it was "committed to stabilizing F-35 cost, affordability and to fielding the aircraft on time."

The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram contributed to this report.