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Why an incoming stealth fighter program could be a ‘franchise that goes on forever’ for Wright-Patt

When the F-35 Lightning II stealthily flies faster than the speed of sound, its elegant movement, sensor fusion and precision strike capabilities combine with an engine that can produce 43,000 pounds of thrust.

For the Miami Valley, however, what the F-35 represents is far greater than its capabilities as a stealth fighter.

Although the decision is not final, the Air Force last week selected Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as the “preferred location” for the F-35 Lightning II Hybrid Product Support Integrator organization, which supports the entire F-35 enterprise.

The move would bring at least 400 jobs to the base, but the potential impact to the region can’t be measured in base jobs alone.

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“The F-35 is going to be the most widely used fighter in the world for the next 30 years,” said Loren Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute. “That means this is a franchise that goes on forever for the workforce at Wright-Patterson.”

Paul Newman Jr., Greene County’s development director, said the F-35 organization will build on the bevy of defense contractors that have set up operations around the base. This has been proven true for the county when other missions have come or gone from Wright-Patterson, he said.

“It’s going to benefit the entire region for years to come,” he said.

A Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II performs at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in June, 2017. TY GREENLEES / STAFF (Staff Writer)

Other local officials says the program could cause an economic snowball effect — spurring revenue for top defense contractors in the region, which land millions of dollars in contracts annually. Some of the top defense contractors include LION, UTC Aerospace Systems, Universal Technology Corp., MacAulay-Brown Inc., UES Inc., and GE Aviations Systems.

Steve Brodsky, development director for the city of Xenia, said it’s too soon to guage the impact, but that city is eager to welcome new military families to the region. The city is considering creating a specific housing project geared toward civilians and military at the base, he said.

“We’re already seeing an expansion in housing in Xenia,” he said.

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Wright-Patt ‘uniquely qualified’

The current F-35 HPSI organization is located in Crystal City, Va., at the F-35 Joint Program Office. The program supports a global fleet of more than 340 aircraft and when it moves to its new location will be led by the Air Force with a workforce from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, international partners and industry.

The decision to move the program to Wright-Patterson is not completely solidified. The Air Force will now conduct a requisite environmental analysis. The final decision will be confirmed by the Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson after the analysis is complete.

Wright-Patterson officials would not comment on the announcement, a spokesman told this newspaper.

Local and state officials worked diligently to persuade the Air Force to select Wright-Patterson as the home for the F-35 operation.

In April, U.S. Senators Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, led the entire Ohio congressional delegation in writing a letterto U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson. The lawmakers made the case for Wright-Patt and said the base was uniquely qualified to handle the new mission.

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In June, Portman, Brown, and Turner, along with other members of the Ohio delegation, met with Secretary Wilson in Washington, where they made the case for Wright-Patt in person. The delegation touted that the Air Force Materiel Command and the Life Cycle Management Center are both based at Wright-Patterson.

Jeff Hoagland, president and CEO of the Dayton Development Coalition, said the F-35 decision ensures Wright-Patterson will remain strongly involved in the F-35 aircraft program, which is vital to the Air Force and national defense.

Hoagland said Wright-Patterson is the “intellectual capital of the U.S. Air Force,” making it a natural fit to bring the F-35 program to the region. The economic benefits are far-reaching because the “sustaining” program will likely stay at the base for decades to come, and it brings high-paying jobs, he said.

Wright-Patterson already has an F-35 technical division office. The Fighters and Bombers Directorate, which oversees management programs such as the F-15, F-16 and F-22, and the B-1, B-2 and B-52, is also headquartered at Wright-Patterson.

Wright-Patterson’s growth has remained steady, with federal approval this year for a $182 million construction project of the new National Air and Space Intelligence Center headquarters. NASIC has grown by 100 jobs each year for 15 years.

State officials know the importance of keeping Wright-Patterson at the helm of Air Force operations. Wright-Patterson is the largest single-site employer in Ohio with about 27,000 civilian employees and military personnel with a direct payroll of $2.2 billion and an estimated $4.3 billion total regional economic impact.

Proposed legislation in recent months would make Ohio an attractive place for military personnel and families. Ohio occupational licensing agencies would be directed to issue temporary licenses to members of the military and their spouses when the move to Ohio for active duty, under a bill that passed the Ohio House on a 82-0 vote last week. The bill now moves to the Ohio Senate for consideration.

Mike DeWine said in November that as governor, he will appoint a cabinet-level official to concentrate on military installations across Ohio — calling out Wright-Patterson as a primary reason.

“It’s important that the state fully understand what’s going on at the base and how we can be helpful. It is an essential part of the economy of the state of Ohio and certainly it’s an essential part of the economy in the Miami Valley,” DeWine said last month.

The F-35 organization would only add to the economic powerhouse that is Wright-Patterson.

Currently, the F-35 has a $3.5 million domestic economic impact in Ohio, according to Lockheed Martin. The state has 42 supplier locations for the F-35, and the stealth fighter has created 4,080 direct and indirect jobs here. According to industry economic forecasting, the stealth fighter is responsible for more than 194,000 direct and indirect jobs nationwide.

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F-35 to add to ‘more lethal and ready Air Force’

The F-35 will replace the U.S. Air Force’s aging fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt II’s, which have been the primary fighter aircraft for more than 20 years. When it makes sharp turns with seemingly little effort, the aircraft transitions between exerting raw power — sending out an inevitable, roaring boom — to flipping and soaring in grandiose loops.

“Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has the trained acquisition professionals with the right fighter aircraft experience to run this organization for DOD’s Joint Program Office,” said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson. “We expect this experience to help us drive down F-35 sustainment costs as we build a more lethal and ready Air Force.”

Sustainment costs have been an issue for the F-35 enterprise, the most expensive aircraft in Air Force history. The F-35 has a projected cost of more than $1 trillion over a 60-year life cycle, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The Secretary of Defense directed the Air Force to achieve a minimum of 80 percent mission capable rates for fiscal year 2019 for the F-35, F-22 and F-16 while simultaneously reducing operating and maintenance costs every year starting in fiscal year 2019, according to a report released by the GOA.

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Lockheed and the Pentagon reached an agreement in September that would lower the cost by millions of dollars per plane. The $11.5-billion contract covers a batch of 141 fighters known as Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) Lot 11. The bulk of the aircraft covered by this contract – 91 fighters – will be delivered to the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. The remaining 35 aircraft are for delivery to international partners, according to a Lockheed Martin.

The F-35 program announced on Thursday that it officially entered into its operation test phase. During this phase, the Joint Strike Fighter Operational Test Team will put the fighter through tests to “identify areas for improvement in the most stressing operationally representative environments.”

In October, the program put a temporary stop to F-35 operations to conduct fuel tube inspections after the crash of an F-35B in South Carolina. Flights resumed within days after maintainers concluded that fuel tubes were not faulty.

“The start of formal operational testing is a milestone more than 18 years in the making,” Vice Adm. Mat Winter, F-35 program executive officer, said in a statement.

Feedback will be provided to congressional and department leaders throughout the test phase.

“Once the F-35 is built, keeping it air-worthy and equipped is a much more expensive proposition than initial production. We’re talking of hundreds of billions of dollars. Therefore, the Air Force has to find ways of lowering costs of maintenance, training, refueling the plane, and all those other factors that keep it in service,” Thompson, a defense analyst.

He said there are many initiatives to cut costs including building a diagnostic function into the fighter to detect problems earlier while competing services among subcontractors so the Air Force gets the best possible price.

The heady program could be at risk if the defense budget goes through any major cuts. Turner and other House members are urging President Trump to uphold the administration’s commitment of $733 billion for the Department of Defense as the administration finalizes its 2020 budget. Republican lawmakers say cuts would have devastating effects on military readiness.

“The national debt is rising so fast that the White House will need to restrain military spending. If the Air Force wants a large and airworthy force of F-35s, it will need to economize,” Thompson said. “I don’t think the F-35 program is what they will cut.”

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