U.S. defense chief voices confidence in grounded F-35 fleet

Thu Jul 10, 2014 8:39pm EDT
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By David Alexander

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., July 10 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told military fliers on Thursday the stealthy F-35 attack plane had "issues" but was still "the future for our fighter aircraft" despite a fire that grounded the fleet and jeopardized its international debut in Britain.

In a visit to the Florida base where the blaze occurred in late June, Hagel spoke with F-35 pilots and maintenance workers about the Lockheed Martin aircraft but was not able to say whether the planes would be cleared to resume flight in time to participate in air shows in Britain.

Key F-35 contractors are Lockheed Martin Corp, Northrop Grumman Corp and BAE Systems Plc.

Hagel, speaking in front of a pair of the F-35s, said the pilots and maintainers voiced "tremendous confidence" in the so-called fifth-generation aircraft, which has stealthy radar-evading technology and a suite of integrated sensors that digest and feed information to the pilot through a special helmet.

"Some of the pilots told me it was the best aircraft that they had ever flown and some said it was the easiest and simplest aircraft they'd ever flown," Hagel said.

"I was particularly happy to hear that because I believe this aircraft is the future for our fighter aircraft for our services," he said. "This is as big a project, the F-35, as we have at the Department of Defense and we've got a lot riding on this aircraft."

Hagel said he knew "there are issues" with the plane but he had "strong, strong confidence in the people who make this aircraft fly (and) maintain it."

The F-35 is the world's largest arms program and is currently projected to cost about $398.6 billion. The plane, which will ultimately replace most of the U.S. military's fighters, has been sharply criticized over its huge cost growth.   Continued...