Sen. Graham vows to fight to bring F-35 squadrons to Beaufort

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Joe Wilson assured Beaufort residents and business leaders Monday they will send a singular message to the U.S. Department of Defense as it decides how to divide 13 new Joint Strike Fighter squadrons between Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point, N.C.

"We love the Marines; we want the planes," Graham said during a news conference at the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We're going to push as hard as we can for the next couple of months to get this over the finish line."

Graham and Wilson said that between now and December -- when a final decision on dividing the squadrons is expected -- they will lobby Defense Department and Marine Corps officials.

Graham also asked state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, one of the many state and local elected officials present Monday, to speak with Gov. Mark Sanford and Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley about writing letters of support. Davis is Sanford's former chief of staff and has campaigned on Haley's behalf.

Beaufort has an "unbroken bond that goes back generations" with the military, and its local installations represent the area's "economic heart and soul," Graham said.

"You're going to get the F-35s here because you've earned the right to have them here," Graham said. "It's going to make this community vibrant ... for generations to come."

The Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35, will replace the F-18 Hornets now based at the air station, as well as other fighter and attack jets flown by the Marines and other military branches.

Each active-duty squadron has an estimated economic impact of $30 million to $35 million.

A Navy report released in May recommended basing three active-duty squadrons and two pilot training squadrons at MCAS Beaufort. Eight active-duty squadrons would be assigned to MCAS Cherry Point.

North Carolina officials have been lobbying the Pentagon for another alternative that would send all 11 active-duty squadrons to MCAS Cherry Point and the two pilot training squadrons to MCAS Beaufort.

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.

MCAS Beaufort could be vulnerable to closure if it didn't have active-duty squadrons along with training squadrons, chamber and city officials have said.

Wilson, who is being challenged in November's general election by Lady's Island Democrat and former Marine Corps officer Rob Miller, said he will take every opportunity to meet with decision-makers and "make a case for Beaufort."

Beaufort has the right environment that would allow year-round training and be a place "people will want to locate and want to train," Wilson said during the event.

Both Wilson and state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said they remain attentive to those concerned about the increased noise that would accompany the new jets.

There are ways to mitigate the noise impact: through hours of operation, flight pattern and the use of auxiliary landing fields, Wilson said.

Other state bases that could receive a version of the F-35 include Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover. The Air Force is expected to receive 1,763 new fighter jets.