Lockheed Martin marked another milestone in the F-35 program on Tuesday with the rollout of the first advanced fighter jet built for Norway.
Top government and military leaders from Washington and the Scandinavian nation gathered at Lockheed’s Fort Worth aeronautics complex, with officials praising Norway’s commitment to the program through years of technical delays and cost increases.
“In the face of challenges, one nation embraced the long view and stood steadfast with the program. And that was Norway,” said Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed’s chairman and CEO, noting its position as a development partner and a later decision to boost its order.
But amid the celebration, there was also concern over how a looming budget crisis in Washington might affect the program.
Congressional stalemate on a defense budget for the next fiscal year threatens to freeze spending on the F-35 program at 2015 levels just as jet production is about to significantly ramp up in west Fort Worth. Congress faces an end-of-the-fiscal year deadline next week to approve funding for next year’s programs.
After the ceremony, Rep. Kay Granger called the possibility of a year-long continuing resolution, or CR, “a huge risk” that would be detrimental to the F-35 and other defense programs. “It is the worst thing we could do,” she said.
But Granger said she was hopeful after hearing that there are ongoing talks to work out a short-term CR, which would buy time to negotiate a full-year budget. Short-term budget extensions are not all that unusual.
A budget standoff would stifle momentum that has been accelerating in the long-troubled F-35 program, which has been lauded for making steady improvement the past two years. A multi-million dollar upgrade of the mile-long production plant is underway in anticipation of jet production increasing from about 40 jets a year to more than 50 next year and nearly 200 a year by the end of the decade. Lockheed has said it plans to add 1,000 assembly line jobs to handle the increased production.
On Tuesday, Eriksen Søreide, Norway’s Minister of Defense, called the F-35 “by far the most advanced fighter ever made” and said it would improve all of the nation’s armed forces.
“We all know that the F-35 is not simply another fighter. We know that it is much more,” she said.
In her remarks, Granger said the F-35 would be “a game changer” in northern Europe, with its ability to evade enemy radar, and will help Norway protect itself from an increasingly aggressive Russian neighbor.
“Norway lives in a dangerous neighborhood,” she said. “Norway’s Air Force has scrambled over 40 times a year since 2007 when Russian President (Vladimir) Putin ordered resumed fighter plane and bomber flights in international air space. There’s also been a major increase in Russian military aircraft flying in the Arctic and along the coast of Norway.”
Norway, one of eight partner nations in the giant program, plans to buy 52 F-35s, which boast advanced electronics and stealth capability. Later this year, the first jet will be ferried to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where Norwegian pilots will be trained the fly the aircraft.
As with other partner nations, Norwegian companies build parts for the F-35 program including electronics and parts for the rudder. They also developed a drag chute to help the jet land safely on icy surfaces.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, said Norway’s support of the program has been instrumental to the F-35’s development.
“We are here because of the persistence, not just of the design team and the military, but also of the political leaders who have been involved … and also, in this case, of the Norwegian people,” he said.
Regarding the budget situation in Washington, Kendall he is not as optimistic as he’d like to be at this time, but said that talks are underway to approve a CR through mid-December. “I’m hopeful that Congress will come to a compromise,” he said.