Air Force Officials Say F-35 Program Back On Track, Eielson Remains Preferred Location

The Department of Defense's first U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, July 14, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago)
The Department of Defense’s first U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, July 14, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago)

The F-35 aircraft, the new fighter the Air Force wants to keep at Eielson Air Force base, has been plagued by cost overruns and equipment failures, but Air Force brass told a U.S. Senate Committee this morning those problems are in the past.

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In recent years, many have called on the Pentagon to pull the plug on the expensive aircraft. But Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh says the F-35 is back on track.

“This is no longer a power point slide. We have flown thousands of F-35 sorties now. They’re on the ramps in multiple bases. We’re starting training of our first operational pilots,” Welsh said. “So we are well into this program being a real thing. A year from now, a year and half from now we will declare initial operational capability for the F-35, and I see nothing that stands in the way.”

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James says she also believes the F-35 will make upcoming deadlines, despite uncertainties.

“Software can be a tricky matter, and that’s always a bit of a concern,” James said. “And then there’s the need for experienced maintenance people to be able to shift over to the F-35. We think we’ve got that reasonably under control now.”

And James says if budget sequestration continues, the Air Force would have to buy fewer F-35s, which would drive up the cost of each aircraft, now estimated at $115 million apiece.

The F-35 is designed to be stealthier and detect enemy aircraft faster. A version designed for the Marines can hover and land like a helicopter. Stumbles in the development have included $1,500 tires that didn’t hold up and wingtip lights that didn’t meet FAA standards.

Eielson is the Air Force’s preferred location for the first F-35 squadrons. The final basing decision is expected in 2016.