PINELLAS PARK - U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Indian Shores, said Monday he would propose funding this week to increase production of F-35 fighter planes in fiscal 2015, boosting support for the Defense Department's most costly and controversial project. The chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense for the House Committee on Appropriations said the House bill would fund $562 million for advance procurement for 42 F-35s in fiscal 2015, up from 29 in both fiscal 2013 and 2014. Young's budget proposal, and his participation Monday in a briefing at Lockheed Martin's Pinellas County plant that manufactures the stealth fighter's canopies, reinforced efforts to enhance support for the $400 billion project. In the overall project, Lockheed Martin would build 2,457 stealth F-35 aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marines through 2037 to replace F-16s, A-10s and F/A-18s, some of which have flown for more than 30 years. Contracts to build F-35s for 10 other nations are pending, although cost and other issues remain obstacles.
"The biggest challenge for us will be sequestration," Young said in an interview following his presentation on the F-35. The sequestration budget noose Congress fashioned for itself by approving large budget cuts that most in Washington expected would be overturned - but have not - has played havoc with current and future military operations. The Associated Press reported Monday many of the Air Force's combat aircraft have started flying again as the military reshuffled spending priorities to get its pilots additional training. The grounding affected about one third of active-duty combat craft. The F-35 project also face long-term issues. At an average annual expenditure of $12.6 billion through 2037 and a cost of $161 million per F-35 - compared with inflation adjusted costs of about $16.8 million for each Cold War era F-105 fighter-bomber - the F-35 program presents a giant target for military budget critics. They point to U.S. defense spending greater than the next highest 13 nations' military expenditures combined and cite F-35s as a prime candidate for trims. Some analysts point toward less costly, albeit equally controversial drones - costing around $15 million, although F-35 backers say the drones and the aircraft, equipped with sophisticated technology that can control drones from the air, are complementary systems. The Government Accountability Office said in a June report contractor restructuring has improved the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who was openly critical of Lockheed Martin top management as recently as January, said the contractor has improved its relations with the Pentagon. But the GAO in June also warned about maintenance and operational costs, saying projected costs of sustaining the F-35 fleet have been deemed unaffordable by DoD officials. "We have seen a really strong defense of the program as the budget continues to tighten at the Pentagon," Stephen Miles, coalition coordinator for the "Win without War" advocacy group said in an email Monday. "Lockheed Martin and their fellow contractor are going all-in on protecting the F-35 and we've seen their lobbying budgets and campaign contributions tick up recently." What's boosted Lockheed Martin, however, is that with 69 F-35s delivered to the military by mid-June, including 25 at Eglin Air Force in the Florida Panhandle, the manufacturer can finally focus on the aircraft's performance and the project's economic development role. The F-35 was designed primarily to bomb high-priority targets in heavily defended areas, using advanced stealth design to minimize - though not eliminate - enemy radar returns. The aircraft can fly at Mach 1.6, although there's a trade-off between speed and stealth. The latest cockpit technology provides not only a display of enemy surface-to-air missile sites and airborne enemy fighter planes, but shows the range at which enemy missile sites can detect an incoming F-35. The F-35's stealth characteristics outpace current weapons performance, meaning longer range bombs and air-to-air missiles must be designed to take full advantage of the F-35's ability to fire weapons before the enemy is aware an F-35 is initiating combat. Florida is one of 46 states and Puerto Rico with suppliers participating in the F-35 program. Only 15 of 240 employees at Lockheed Martin's Pinellas County plant are involved in making canopies under a current $6 million contract, but as deliveries ramp up, that could grow to more than 100 local jobs. "The F-35 is a great plane with only one problem - it has no enemy," former U.S. Rep Barney Frank, D-Mass., said last month at the NetRoots conference in San Jose. "We aren't likely to get into a war with China or Russia." Lockheed Martin F-35 senior manager Bob DuLaney said after Monday's briefing that threats change, and major powers could supply others with sophisticated equipment to deny U.S. air superiority. " You cannot predict the next combat," the retired Air Force lieutenant general and F-16 and F-4 combat pilot said. [email protected] (813) 259-7817