In this age of austerity I am an unrepentant and unapologetic supporter of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Let's get a few things straight about what that means. It means I think this jet and the program are absolutely critical to our national defense and our continued air dominance. It means we made a very bad mistake cancelling the F-22 program after 182 aircraft (to replace 700-800 aging air superiority fighters) and the JSF is the last and greatest hope for bridging that self-inflicted 5th generation fighter gap and retaining our technological and tactical air edge.
Perhaps what it doesn’t mean is important as well. My support requires a well thought out and managed project that maximizes the taxpayers dollars by minimizing waste. But I also understand what “developmental aircraft” means, and thus, as critics zero in on every little hiccup and glitch, I’d point out that’s the purpose of testing the aircraft as it goes from concept to reality. They test to ferret those problems out and fix them before they go into full production. At this time the testing on the JSF is going very well.
That said, it was with great pleasure I accepted an invitation from Lockheed Martin to see the JSF’s cockpit demonstrator at its sprawling Marietta complex. It is at that facility that houses the soon to be shut down assembly line for the F-22. But it is also where the center wing fuselage of the F-35 is being built and the place with a state-of-the-art stealth coating facility for the fighter is located.
That brings up another critical reason for fully funding and building the F-35. Jobs. These aircraft will provide good paying jobs for hundreds of thousands of Americans in an area that is critical to our national security. We’re not talking about make work projects at tax payer expense, but a true contribution to our national defense. In Marietta alone, the Lockheed Martin plant employs 8,200 Georgians. The JSF employs 1,000 of them and has created 500 additional contractor jobs as well. And that’s one state.
Aerospace business is one of our major industrial success stories in an otherwise dismal sector. We rank at the top in the aerospace business in the world, and the JSF will help keep us there.
The cockpit demonstration was interesting for a variety of reasons. I won’t go into the details of that because Wendy Stewart did a fabulous job of that in her post here a couple of weeks ago. But, suffice it to say, I got to see all the whiz-bang cool stuff up close and personal. For instance a mockup of the pilot’s helmet. It has the Heads Up Display (HUD) in the visor of the helmet. That means regardless of where the pilot looks, all that critical information is still available to him.
More impressive though was the sensor array that gives the pilot 360 degree vision outside the aircraft. He can literally look down at the floor of the aircraft and the infrared sensors located outside the aircraft will create a view of what is below the aircraft. As one of the engineers said, it’s like Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane.
The cockpit itself is an amazing array of digital information on a touch screen. I could spend paragraphs trying to describe everything, but as my wife, who accompanied me and is a pilot herself said, it was amazingly uncluttered. Instead of a vast array of gauges, switches, buttons and dials, the pilot configures his touch screen display as he wants it and then calls up any other information he needs when he needs it.
Of course we had a couple of politicians on hand as well. Senator Saxby Chambliss of GA and Rep. Phil Gingrey in whose district the Lockheed Martin plant is located. Both are firm supporters of the JSF, as might be expected, but Chambliss also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. When questioned by the media about the possibility of cuts to the program he was adamant that this is one program that must be fully funded.
And he made a good point. He said we have a pretty woeful record of deciding who our next potential enemy is going to be. So it behooves us to prepare for the worst case scenario. And he’s right. It also maintains our technological edge which has served us so well in the past 60 years as we’ve easily gained and maintained air dominance in every type of fight in which we’ve engaged during that time. That has given us a record that is one I’d like to see continued unbroken. We’ve not lost a soldier or Marine engaged in ground combat to enemy close air support.
Why? The bad guys have just never been able to muster the ability, regardless of the intensity of the conflict, because we’ve been able to overwhelm and destroy them before they could ever pose a threat to our ground troops. That is a capability we must continue. We owe those we’re going to put in harm’s way the very best in technology, capability and firepower. The F-35 provides that and more. It is an aircraft critical to our future national security and it is just as critical we ensure that it doesn’t go the way of the F-22.
UPDATE: Gen. Petraeus had much the same message for Congress as that of Sen. Chambliss as he spoke at his retirement ceremony:
We have relearned since 9/11 the timeless lesson that we don't always get to fight the wars for which we're most prepared or most inclined. Given that reality, we will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."