By David B. Pittman –
Lockheed Martin officials descended upon Sargent Aerospace & Defense in Marana recently to demonstrate the capabilities of the F-35 Lightning II, which is described as the world’s most advanced military fighter aircraft.
They were greeted by an enthusiastic audience of Sargent employees, elected officials, political hopefuls, business leaders and news reporters, many of whom took the opportunity to get behind the controls inside the cockpit of an F-35 flight simulator.
Lockheed Martin, a leading global security and aerospace contractor based in Bethesda, Md., brought it’s “road show” to Marana and to Sargent, a leading supplier for the F-35 project. Sargent is designing and manufacturing more than 70 flight-critical components for the supersonic aircraft, including hydraulic valves and actuators, structural pins, specialty bearings and pneumatic sealing devices.
“Sargent Aerospace & Defense designs and those of our other Arizona suppliers are critical to the F-35 program, so it is important that they have an opportunity to experience this multi-role fighter’s superior performance capabilities,” said Bob Rubino, director of the U.S. Navy F-35 Program for Lockheed Martin. “The F-35 program will serve as the cornerstone of global security and will significantly impact the U.S. economy for many years to come.”
As the first F-35s are moving off the assembly line and being flight tested, there has been vociferous debate about where the new planes should be stationed. Tucson opponents of the F-35 complain that increased noise levels, vibration and flight danger posed by the new aircraft make it unsuitable for deployment in Tucson.
Support of the Business Community
The F-35, however, has the strong support of the Tucson business community.
The aircraft has the backing of both the Tucson Metro Chamber and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, which claim it would be disastrous to the local economy if F-35 training is not undertaken in Tucson.
“The 162nd Fighter Wing is the International F-16 Training Center for the U.S. Air Force,” said Ron Shoopman, president and CEO of SALC and a retired brigadier general who formerly commanded the 162nd Fighter Wing.
“If the F-35 doesn’t come to the Air National Guard at TIA, the entire wing is in jeopardy of being shut down,’’ Shoopman said. “It is critical we do everything we can to get the Air Force to assign the F-35 to the 162nd Fighter Wing.”
The 162nd Fighter Wing employs 1,450 people and is Southern Arizona’s 37th largest employer. The economic impact of the 162nd Fighter Wing is estimated to be between $280 million and $325 million annually.
Michael Varney, president and CEO of Tucson Metro Chamber, noted that the aerospace and defense industry in Southern Arizona represents more than 20 companies providing in excess of $5 billion in annual revenues.
“We are trying to grow the aerospace and defense industry in Southern Arizona,” Varney said. “Having the F-35 here is a critical component of the future of that entire industry.”
Proponents of the F-35 say design and early manufacture of the aircraft is already boosting the economy. With 17 Arizona suppliers, the F-35 program supports more than 1,100 direct and indirect jobs and more than $91 million in economic impact across the state. Nationally, the F-35 program has suppliers in 45 states and provides more than 140,000 direct and indirect jobs. These employment and economic impact numbers will undergo huge increases as the program moves from its initial stages into full-rate production.
“We believe the F-35 will strengthen our military, the economy and, most importantly, our local economy,” said Scott Still, Sargent’s president.
What Critics Say
Opponents say the “short-term benefits’’ of the F-35 don’t outweigh the long-term cost to the environment.
“It makes no sense to base the loudest, most powerful, unproven fighter jet at a commercial airport, already a designated Superfund site, surrounded by the densely populated cities of Tucson and South Tucson,” said a letter to the mayor and Tucson City Council from Tucson Forward and the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, two groups opposed to deployment of the F-35 in Tucson.
Rubino, however, provided global security and economic justification for the F-35 during his visit to Sargent. He said emerging battlefield threats are making current military fighter jets obsolete. One of those threats is surface-to-air missiles, which he said are becoming extremely sophisticated and are increasingly being used to deny access to critically important air space. Rubino said the F-35 can penetrate even missile-guarded air spaces because it has stealth capability.
Keeping Troops Safe
The F-35’s shape, embedded antennas, aligned edges, internal weapons and fuel, and special coatings all contribute to the aircraft’s stealth capability.
“The F-35 is an information sponge,” Rubino added. “It absorbs and sees everything that is going on around the aircraft in the battle-space environment. And that’s important because it helps the pilot, our men and women in uniform, to have better situational awareness of what is going on around them so they can better execute their mission and have better survivability.”
When it comes to establishing air superiority during wartime, most Americans want the United States to have a clear-cut technological advantage, which is what the F-35 provides, Rubino said.
“In the last 60 years, we have not lost any ground troops to enemy aircraft because of our air superiority and our air dominance,” he said. “That is directly attributable to the U.S. services efforts to continually modernize the fleet and get the greatest capabilities possible.”
Rubino said DOD officials have insisted the F-35 must be affordable. One way that is being accomplished, he said, is by making the F-35 the jet fighter of choice for the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force, rather than having a different aircraft for each service. The F-35 utilizes three designs to accommodate the different methods of landing and taking off used by the military services.
Production Ramping Up
The F-35 is already being built, but not in the numbers that will eventually be reached when the aircraft reaches full-rate production in six or seven years. Currently, 153 aircraft have been appropriated. The first 11 production jets have been delivered to the Marine Corps and the Air Force. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands became the first of 10 U.S. allies expected to purchase the F-35.
“We are at a low-rate of production right now,” Rubino said. “We are building three aircraft per month. By the end of the year we will be building four aircraft per month. At the end of six to seven years, we will be up to 18 to 20 aircraft per month – and that is when you get to your economies of scale. That equates to one aircraft coming out of the factory door every working day. That is where we need to get.”
When the F-35 reaches full production, Rubino said, it will cost about the same to build as the aircraft it is replacing.
Still said the F-35 program is the reason Sargent’s 70,000-square-foot building just west of Interstate 10 in Marana was built.
“We built this because of the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) and the future business that is out there for our company and our employees,” Still said. “We are growing and we are hiring good aerospace employees for high-paying jobs.”
Marana Key in Sargent Expansion
Still said Marana Mayor Ed Honea played a key role in making Sargent’s expansion possible. “The Town of Marana’s dedication to keep Sargent here and help us expand has been vital,” he said.
Before becoming the first at the Marana event to hop into the F-35 cockpit simulator, Honea, a U.S. Navy veteran, said Sargent not only “creates wealth in the region that passes through our school districts, our fire districts and the town, but it also brings our friends and neighbors here and gives them a place to work doing something that is really of benefit to our community.”
Honea said it is important that Southern Arizonans support the F-35 and the aircraft’s deployment to TIA.
“Bringing the F-35 here is important because it would create jobs and put wealth in our community,’’ he said.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and the Tucson City Council have yet to take a position on the issue – which is a sore spot among Tucson business leaders backing the F-35 at TIA.
“Our country, our city and Tucson International Airport all need the F-35 and the 162nd Fighter Wing,” said Bill Valenzuela, owner of W.G. Valenzuela Drywall and the state chairman emeritus for the National Committee of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
“Takeoffs and landings by the 162nd Fighter Wing are included with local commercial air traffic at TIA in determining the amount of funds allocated by the federal government for airport improvements,’’ he said.
Varney said that if the F-35 is deployed for flight training by the 162nd Fighter Wing, it would result in an infusion of more than $175 million in federal construction dollars at TIA to make improvements in preparation for F-35 flights. He said that would create 1,800 to 2,100 new jobs.
Despite vociferous opposition to the F-35 at three public hearings regarding the possible deployment of the aircraft in Tucson, both Valenzuela and Varney maintain the vast majority of Tucsonans support the F-35 and the aircraft’s deployment at TIA.
Varney said that if sentiments at the three public meetings are any indication, “there is widespread community support for the F-35, including (among) residents currently living or working in the flight paths at TIA.”