Beaufort News

Defense Department budget proposal could delay arrival of new Marine jets

The arrival of the military's newest and most-expensive fighter jet at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort has suffered another potential setback.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a new budget proposal Thursday that included giving defense contractors two more years to correct technical problems with the Marine Corps' variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Specifically, the military wants the jet's contractor, Lockheed Martin, to spend more time developing software so the jets can execute the short-takeoff, vertical landing capability they're supposed to have.

"If we cannot fix this variant in this two-year time frame ... then I believe it ought to be canceled," Gates said in a Pentagon press briefing.

The Corps' jet, also known as the F-35B, was first estimated at $50 million per jet, and now is estimated to cost more than $100 million each.

The announcement Thursday likely means a two-year delay in the arrival of new jets at MCAS Beaufort. The jets were originally slated to begin arriving in January 2014 or 2015.

In December, the Navy announced its decision to house three new active-duty JSF squadrons and two pilot-training squadrons, or 88 jets total, at the air station. The new jets will replace the F-18 Hornets now flown at the base.

Attempts to reach Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce officials for comment on the possible delay were unsuccessful Thursday night.

Air station officials have said in the past that changes in the delivery schedule will not prevent the base from going ahead with necessary construction and renovation to accommodate the aircraft when they become available.

"The date of January 2014 ... is our timeline that the base must be ready for JSF operations, and we will be ready for the arrival of the jets within that calendar year," Lt. Sharon Hyland, air station spokesman, said last month. "We are ... prepared to remain fluid with the timeline of the jets' arrival."

According to a Navy environmental statement released in May, a pilot-training center, new hangars, flight simulators and special pads to accommodate the jets' vertical landings and takeoffs are among the $351.8 million in improvements needed to house the new jet.

Gates' proposal comes less than a month after Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos scrapped plans to have the jet ready for combat by December 2012 because testing is behind schedule. A new deadline has not been set.

The jet has had numerous flight-test schedule delays, some caused by parts shortages or reliability, according to a Bloomberg News report.

Amos told the wire service engineers are working through "mechanical issues" with the propulsion system that lets the Marine Corps jet shift from conventional flight mode to hover in place and make a vertical landing.

The announcement about the future of the JSF came as Gates unveiled his proposed budget amid mounting pressure from Congress to cut military spending.

Gates said the military plans to reduce the Army and Marines Corps by more than 70,000 starting in 2015, the year after the Obama administration has promised to finish withdrawing forces from Afghanistan. Gates also proposed raising health care enrollment costs for retirees who are of working age.

Yet despite those cuts, next years proposed budget will increase by three percent in real growth to $553 billion, not including war spending, raising questions over how much the proposed budget will allay concerns that the Defense Department is not being fiscally responsible during tough economic times.

The proposed spending plan is the 14th in as many years in which defense budget has increased. Indeed it is nearly double what it was just a decade ago. The military currently spends another $159 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this report