- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The Marine Corps in South Carolina is getting its first futuristic F-35 fighter jets in June, a commander from the Air Station in Beaufort announced Wednesday.

Marine Air Group 31 commander Col. Bill Leiblien told members of the South Carolina Military Base Task Force that the first of dozens of aircraft and pilots are due to arrive by early to mid-June.

“We will be in full pilot production in October 2014,” Leiblien told the group of several dozen military officers and supporters.

Leiblien said it will take about eight to 10 months to train each pilot on the advanced aircraft, which is both stealthy and supersonic.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the next-generation of air warfare for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Military officials expect it to be based at Beaufort as well as Shaw Air Force Base in central South Carolina.

The colonel said expectations are that about 60 to 70 pilots will be trained every year.

Leiblien, who is in charge of about 2,800 Marines and sailors at the Air Station, called the aircraft “the future of tactical aviation.”

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program and has been troubled by schedule delays and cost overruns. The developer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., is building different versions for the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to replace Cold War-era aircraft such as the Air Force F-16 fighter, the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet and the Marines’ EA-6B Prowler and AV-8B Harrier.

President Barack Obama’s budget request for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 called for spending $8.7 billion to develop, test and buy 29 aircraft. In total, the Pentagon envisions purchasing more than 2,400 F-35s.

Leiblien says that by Oct. 1, the Air Station expects to have its full flying and training operations underway.

There will be between 70 to 88 F-35s based at Beaufort, making up two training squadrons and three other operational squadrons that can be deployed.

“All the military construction is on track,” the commander said, adding that the aircraft’s main hangar is nearing completion.

He told the group that the pilot training center is completed, while the construction of a vertical landing pad, taxiways and security measures such as the fence are still underway.

The fighter is said to have the most advanced weaponry and radar systems, allowing it to fly and fight in day or night conditions.

The Marine Corps version also will have a vertical landing capability, while the Air Force version lands like a traditional fighter jet.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is pushing for a new round of base closures in 2017, given moves by Congress to sharply reduce government spending, including the Pentagon.

Gov. Nikki Haley appointed members of the task force to help the state support is military communities and fend off any base closures.

Last year, the panel issued a report showing the U.S. military pumps nearly $16 billion into South Carolina’s economy and supports about 140,000 jobs, concentrated in Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia and Sumter. The state is home to eight military installations, 56,000 military retirees and 900 defense contractor firms, and lawmakers don’t want to lose them.


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