WASHINGTON -- For all its high-tech stealth and record price tag, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter embodies the droll military motto, "Hurry up and wait."
Conceived in the heady post-Cold War 1990s, the futuristic fifth-generation jet fighter was to be a technological marvel that would be built in a rush and paid for with "peace dividend" dollars.
Evading radar systems while flying at supersonic speeds, the aircraft would be the first to serve three of the main U.S. military services -- the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps -- each of which has always had its own special plane.
But burdened by years of cost overruns, production snags and flight test problems, the heavily hyped fighter has been on the chopping block in an era of increasing budget austerity, with the Pentagon facing $1 trillion in potential cuts.
What happens to the Joint Strike Fighter is important to the Lowcountry and the rest South Carolina because it's scheduled to be deployed to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's announcement last week that he wouldn't kill the F-35 program outright prompted sighs of relief across the country for parts suppliers and subcontractors that the jet's main manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has promised will provide 127,000 jobs in 47 states.
The reprieve heartened base commanders at the Beaufort air station, which is spending $352 million on upgrades to accommodate 88 F-35Bs, and at three other Marine Corps bases preparing to get their own squadrons in North Carolina, California and Arizona.
Yet Panetta's clemency is hardly a new lease on life.
In releasing the Pentagon's budget priorities Thursday, Panetta restated its commitment to the troubled fighter while delivering an endorsement that seemed more like kissing a second cousin.
"In this budget, we have slowed procurement to complete more testing and allow for development changes before buying in significant quantities," he said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter provided a blunter assessment.
"The Joint Strike Fighter is not ready to go into full-rate production," he told PBS late Thursday. "It will take a couple more years to do that, and so we are slowing the climb to full-rate production for the Joint Strike Fighter. That's for the simple reason that we need to do more testing and some more development work."
THE SLOWDOWN'S EFFECT
It was the third slowdown in as many years for a program that, at a projected $385 billion and rising, is already the most expensive weapons system ever.
The upshot is that many of the 6,000 workers at Lockheed Martin's F-35 final assembly plant outside Fort Worth, Texas, will have time on their hands.
The new slowdown means that a state-of-the-art factory expected to be churning out 100 of the jet fighters annually by now will be lucky to make 30 this year.
It means that most of the 127,000 supplier and subcontractor jobs promised by Lockheed Martin haven't materialized yet in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois and other states that desperately need them in a slow economy.
Most of all, it means that the Pentagon may fall well short of its initial pledge to buy 2,443 of the F-35s; that a dozen Allied and other foreign countries eager to buy the JSF could end up owning more combined aircraft than the United States; that instead of an anticipated hundreds of the jet fighters being deployed in the air by now, it will likely be 2016 or beyond before they join military operations.
All of this explains why Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Senate Armed Services Committee member who backs the F-35 program, sounds like a jilted groom.
"It's probably one of the most mismanaged programs in the Pentagon, but the aircraft is mission essential for our country," the South Carolina Republican told McClatchy. "When people say the F-35 is very costly and behind schedule and over budget -- they're right. Part of the blame is the military, part of it's the contractor (Lockheed Martin). But we need the fighter. To stop production of the F-35 now after finally getting the kinks worked out would make no sense."
In South Carolina, the new slowdown means Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort might not get its five squadrons of F-35s as scheduled by 2015; and that the F-16s at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter probably will have to fly years longer before being replaced by the JSF fighters.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
With the Cold War over, the Joint Strike Fighter was designed to amaze the world and cement the United States' status as the sole remaining superpower. The new plane would ensure that Americans "own the skies" during the stealth dogfights Pentagon planners predicted would dominate the wars of the future.
Graham, a military lawyer who's served in Iraq and Afghanistan, blamed some of the production and testing delays on Defense Department design engineers who keep adding unnecessary bells and whistles to the F-35.
"A lot of times the Pentagon just wants to sexy these things up and make them do 'wow stuff' when 'wow' is not required," Graham said.
Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the Joint Strike Fighter is being built on the fly and funded by lawmakers who -- partially because of the project's jobs in their districts -- don't want to kill it but can't afford to provide enough money to meet the constantly shifting technological challenges.
"The program plan has changed every year for a decade," Donnelly said. "We've had to invent it and build it at the same time. So you're going to take some technological risks, but you're going to keep building and fixing. Inventing something that's never been made before is inherently risky."
Unforeseen events have stolen money and focus from the Joint Strike Fighter.
Just after F-35 design work began in earnest, terrorists launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have drained a combined $1 trillion from the Pentagon and produced new priorities in the "war on terror."
With lawmakers scrambled to find deep spending cuts to ease the debt crisis, the rising cost of the Joint Strike Fighter, plus its production and test problems, made it a prime target.
"In a nutshell, the JSF program has been both a scandal and a tragedy," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, said last month on the Senate floor. "We are saddled with a program that has little to show for itself after 10 years and $56 billion in taxpayer investment."
While McCain stopped short of calling for the program to be axed, his criticism is all the more remarkable since Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in his state is slated to get six F-35B squadrons with 88 aircraft.
DOLLARS OR DEFENSE
The specter of the ill-fated F-22 program hangs over the Joint Strike Fighter.
Conceived during the Cold War, the F-22 was designed to combat Soviet planes in a potential Third World War.
But when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the F-22 became a plane without a mission. The Pentagon purchased only 187 of a planned 750 F -22s, and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ended the program in 2009.
To fend off such a fate for the F-35, Reps. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, and Norm Dicks, a Washington state Democrat, formed the Congressional Joint Strike Fighter Caucus in November.
In addition to Texas and Washington, most of its members are from other states in which Lockheed-Martin says will see at least 1,000 jobs tied to F-35 production -- California, Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, Georgia and a half dozen others.
South Carolina is slated to get only 134 jobs, but Graham said the state's key military bases and the nation's broader national security needs make the Joint Strike Fighter imperative to preserve.
"Making airplanes is not about creating jobs, it's about protecting America," Graham said. "I want not just to save an airplane. I want to have the capability we need as a nation to defend ourselves."
McClatchy reporters Rob Hotakainen in Washington, D.C., Bob Cox in Fort Worth, Texas, and Patrick Donahue in Beaufort, S.C. contributed to this account