Friday, August 31, 2012

Budget impasse clouds F-35's future

Plans to deliver the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets to Nellis Air Force Base early next year hinge on uncertain defense budget cuts and potential layoffs at the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.
Three dozen of the stealthy warplanes are supposed to be based in Southern Nevada.
Automatic defense budget cuts of $492 billion will take effect in January under a measure known as "sequestration" if Congress can't agree on another deficit-reduction plan or doesn't delay the current plan, as Republican senators suggested after a recent trip to the Nellis base during a cross-country tour of military installations.
The cuts set for January would be the first round of 10 annual reductions to follow a split between national security and nonsecurity programs that are aimed at reducing the $16 trillion national debt.
"We don't know how sequestration will affect any individual program or facility but, as we've consistently said, we will follow the law with respect to sequestration and the WARN Act," Lockheed Martin corporate spokesman Christopher Williams said Friday .

He was referring to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires most employers with 100 or more employees to notify workers 60 days before mass layoffs.
If nothing changes, Lockheed Martin will be required to issue layoff notices at the end of October to many in its 120,000 workforce, including those involved with manufacturing, testing and delivering F-35 aircraft.
Williams said before Lockheed Martin makes any decisions about layoffs, the company "will carefully consider forthcoming clarifying guidance" from the Office of Management and Budget as stipulated by the Sequestration Transparency Act, which President Barack Obama signed Aug. 7. That act requires the Obama administration to reveal details about the $1.2 trillion in cuts to domestic and defense programs under sequestration.
Williams said Lockheed Martin Corp. hopes to know some of those details by Sept. 8.
In March, Nellis officials said they expected the first test-and-evaluation F-35 to arrive at the base this fall, with 36 of the versatile fighter jets slated for what is called "beddown" at Nellis through 2020.
But Nellis' public affairs director, Maj. Mae-Li Allison, released a carefully worded response to a Review-Journal query, saying four F-35s are expected to arrive in the first three months of next year.
"We expect to have up to 36 F-35s assigned here between 2013 and 2022," she wrote in an email.
Her opening paragraph said: "It would be inappropriate and premature to speculate on the effects of potential sequestration cuts at Nellis at this time since details about how such cuts would be implemented across defense and domestic programs have not been decided yet."
Earlier this month, U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., met with Air Force leaders at the Nellis base to discuss potential effects of sequestration. They suggested a plan that would postpone the automatic cuts for four months while the Obama administration works out a deficit reduction plan.
After the Aug. 13 meeting, they said the generals told them the Air Force's top fighter pilot training program would be devastated if such deep military cuts take effect.
"Obviously, they are brave, strong people, and they can do anything; but there's no doubt that cuts would have a draconian effect on their ability to do their jobs," McCain, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said before a town hall meeting at the Cheyenne campus of the College of Southern Nevada.
Graham said the future of Nellis Air Force Base will be "very dismal" if sequestration happens.
"The F-35 that they want to use for future training will not be produced in enough numbers that they'll never get the plane," Graham said, adding, "You would not be buying F-35s. You'd be keeping F-16s and F-15s on line for years longer, and you'd have less of them. ... If this happens, Nellis Air Force Base will no longer be what it is today. And that is true for all the major defense installations."
Graham, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, offered an explanation for why F-35 production matters to national security.
"The Russians and the Chinese are selling air defense capabilities to almost anybody who wants to buy them, including the North Koreans. So, if you're a pilot flying an F-16 or an F-15 five or six years from now, the chances of you being at risk multiply greatly. That's why the F-35s and F-22s (Raptors) are so important."
He noted that the radar-evading, stealth technology used in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was developed in 1980. "So, the threats of tomorrow have to be planned for today."
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the Lightning II, is a single-seat fighter designed to replace aging F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt attack jets.
The single-engine F-35, being flown by test pilots at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., can fly at 1½ times the speed of sound and evade detection with stealth technology that reduces its radar signature.
Advanced electronics allow pilots to detect enemy threats at greater distances and strike targets on the ground and in the air using precision-guided munitions launched from a weapons bay on the belly of the aircraft. It is equipped with a 25 mm cannon for attacking enemy aircraft and armored vehicles.
Versions of the F-35 developed for the Navy and Marine Corps are designed to take off from short runways and aircraft carriers and land vertically.
The Pentagon has anticipated spending $69 billion by the time F-35 flight testing ends in 2017, buying 365 aircraft, about 15 percent of the targeted total of 2,443. The first 63, however, exceeded their target cost by $1 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The National Defense Authorization Act that Obama signed at the end of 2011 included $35 million in military construction funds for Nellis to build an F-35 communications network control center, ground equipment facility and engine shop.
Allison, the Nellis spokeswoman, said the base has broken ground on a simulator complex that includes four F-35 simulators, renovated two hangars as part of an F-35 operations and maintenance complex and added F-35 accommodations to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron building.
Nellis F-35 operations are expected to increase flights by roughly 20 percent and add more than 400 personnel to the base, which employs about 9,000 military personnel.

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