The F-35 — cleared for takeoff

The F-35 joint strike fighter program has changed significantly during the past year. The Pentagon restructured the program, installed new leadership to oversee it and conducted a thorough review of the entire project.

One thing hasn’t changed: America needs the F-35.

The Defense Department reaffirmed that fact in a recent report to Congress after taking a hard look at the next-generation fighter. The reassessment concluded the F-35 is vital to national defense and “remains the backbone of the (aviation) inventory.”

The F-35 Lightning II program is delivering three variants of the same aircraft to three U.S. service branches — the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines — as well as several allies who are helping to pay for its development.

The common features shared by the three variants decrease development and operational costs. Just as importantly, the unique features of each variant provide the versatility required for the Air Force to operate on conventional runways, the Navy to operate on aircraft carriers and the Marines to land vertically like a helicopter.

The F-35 will do the job of four aging aircraft that have been the workhorses of our services for the past three decades. It can provide air support for ground troops or attack targets at sea or on land.

Intense scrutiny and restructuring have improved the F-35 program. Now, it’s time to move forward. What the program needs now is stability.

Some Members of Congress have raised the prospect of once again slowing the rate of F-35 production. Current plans call for production to ramp up from 43 aircraft in fiscal year 2011 to more than 220 a year by fiscal year 2016.

Maintaining that production schedule is important because reductions would delay delivery of this vital aircraft to our services and guarantee higher costs. The F-35 program relies on almost 900 suppliers in 45 states. Those companies, which include small businesses, need certainty in the production schedule so they can hire employees and purchase equipment to meet their con tractual obligations on time and on budget.

Stability also encourages foreign investment in the F-35. Eight U.S. allies have partnered with the United States to develop the aircraft. During the life of the program, foreign sales could total more than $60 billion — providing jobs at home and closer cooperation with U.S. allies abroad.

The F-35 is not a jobs program, but in this economy the jobs are certainly welcome. Even at the current low rate of production, the F-35 program generates more than 127,000 direct and indirect jobs across the country. The overall economic impact of the program will total about $11.1 billion this year alone.

Those high-quality jobs are breathing new life into a manufacturing and technology base depleted by spending reductions for military aviation after the end of the Cold War. The production infrastructure is available to deliver F-35s in the quantities that the Defense Department needs.

Production delays would drive up costs, disrupt the supply chain, weaken the commitment of allies and force the service branches to continue to rely on aging, outdated aircraft. No one wins.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is determined to cut defense programs that he considers wasteful but the secretary also understands the need for stability. In a Statement of Administration Policy on the House

Armed Services Committee National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011, the White House has warned Congress that restrictions that limit F-35 production would “impose unacceptable schedule and budget risks.”

To underscore the depth of administration support, the White House warning included a veto threat for any provisions “that would seriously disrupt the F-35 program.”

Of course, cost is a legitimate concern for any government program. Members of Congress and the Defense Department have an obligation to maintain their oversight role on the F-35 program. As a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, I believe the close scrutiny should continue, and it will.

But unnecessary delays will not save money. It is time to move forward with a realistic production schedule for an aircraft that America needs now. The F-35 is ready for takeoff.

Rep. Granger is the Ranking Republican on the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and sits on the Defense Subcommittee.