F-35 takes to skies but still on the ground
Joint Strike Fighter simulator demonstrated in Marana
Sargent Aerospace & Defense, a Marana government contractor, showed off a low-level F-35 flight simulator on Monday morning to about 50 employees and guests.
Sargent makes several components for the F-35, and has 70 to 80 employees working at least part-time on the project out of the facility's approximately 280 workers, said company spokeswoman Lisa Short.
Bob Rubino, the director of the Navy F-35 program at Lockeed Martin, which makes the fighter jet, cited a 71,000 square-foot structure Sargent built to take on the program. Rubino also talked about the $90 million in economic benefits to the state spread among some 17 contractors as civilian benefits to the Joint Strike Fighter program.
Behind the local economics and a chance for VIPs to take a ride in the simulator, a media show the program has taken around the world recently, lies a much less certain future for the program.
The F-35 program was intended to create a multirole, multibranch and multinational strike aircraft "capable of defending us from the high-altitude threats of future conflicts," Rubino, also a former Navy pilot, said.
Rubino also pointed out that the average age of military airframes on active duty is 22 years.
While acknowledging that countries like Iraq and Afghanistan have little or no air power, Rubino said the F-35 is well suited for action areas like Southeast Asia. The President's defense policies and outlooks have recently stressed the strategic importance of the region.
Global defense think-tank STRATFOR evaluated potential strategy in the region last November.
Rubino said the F-35 is designed to take on ground strike/anti-tank roles previously left to the Air Force's A-10 squadrons, although from a much higher altitude to keep stealthy and a versatility advantage over the tank-like A-10.
The F-35 is also supposed to replace air superiority fighters like the F-16 and F-18 as well, Rubino said, citing the aircraft's stealth capabilities and "fifth generation" design.
Critics, including the Department of Defense, have said that the stealth characteristics of the aircraft do not perform as advertised. Defense downgraded the plane from "very low observable" to "low observable" in 2006.
By the nature of stealth design, the F-35 has no external hard points to carry extra fuel, thereby shortening its combat range.
Earlier aircraft still in service today like the F-16, F-15 and F-14 could carry external fuel tanks that could be dropped when empty or to improve combat maneuverability.
These tanks allowed fighters to penetrate deeper into enemy territory, and stay airborne longer to preserve superiority.
Rubino also said that the plane is being developed with American allies in mind both strategically and financially.
No deal is ever a lock, though. As recently as today, Canadian officials are tying to bury their government's involvement in the program.
Rubio said as far as Lockheed Martin is concerned, "We still have all our international partners."
Rubino said that a government program cost estimate of $1 trillion for the 50-year life of the Joint Strike Fighter initiative was the first analysis of its kind, but that Lockheed's position is that current aircraft would be three or four times the cost of the F-35.
The Air Force estimates per unit "flyaway" costs in the $89 million to $200 million range, not including service, maintenance and upgrades.
The development and procurements costs are estimated to be $323 billion, or roughly the estimated 2011 GDP of Colombia.