SEC. GATES: (In progress from source) –It has been a great opportunity to tour this historic facility today. Did a little reading on the history, and we've been producing combat aircraft for the United States of America in this plant since 1942. And now it has the latest generation in combat aircraft that are being produced here, the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35.
I was very impressed by what I saw this morning, by the investments that have been made in the production line, in the robotics and automation, in the -- but I would say especially by the dedication and clear commitment of the men and women who work principally from Lockheed Martin, but from their principal partners as well who are working on this airplane.
They're clearly excited about it. I'm excited about it. I'm especially excited that things seem to be on schedule for the first training squadron at Eglin in 2011 and IOC for the Marine Corps in 2012.
We obviously have a huge investment in this aircraft. It is the heart of the future of tactical combat aviation for our services. So the importance of this program can hardly be overstated. And I was encouraged by what I heard this morning in terms of progress and the ability to overcome the challenges that have already been overcome and begin moving toward completion of the development program in the next few years and then full production.
So I'm heartened by what I've seen here this morning, but especially by the commitment of the people involved in putting this airplane together.
So I feel it was a very good visit, and I'm happy to take a few questions. Ann?
Q (Off mike) -- two things. First, could you say a word about the current state of play on the two engines for this aircraft? Is there still a standing veto threat?
And have you received General McChrystal's assessment? Do you share his assessment that the current strategy in Afghanistan is not working?
SEC. GATES: That would be General McChrystal's assessment of the F-35?
Q He probably is going to ram that in there. (Laughter.)
SEC. GATES: First of all, we have looked at the business case a number of times in terms of an alternative engine to the F135. The general conclusion is that it would cost several billion dollars in addition; that it would, just by the nature of things, be three or four or more years behind the F135 engine. And there's no reason to believe that it would not encounter the same kinds of development challenges that other new engines have encountered along the way.
And so at this point, where we're trying to count every dollar and where a dollar from one program -- added to one program takes away from another program that we think is more important, we feel strongly about the fact that there is not a need for a second engine.
And the president's advisers -- the Hill has been informed that the president's advisers would recommend a veto if that's in the bill. The final decision, obviously, is up to the president.
With respect to General McChrystal's assessment, I have not seen it. I'm here in Fort Worth. I expect I'll get it in the next day or two. As I indicated to you when I met with General McChrystal in Belgium, there were some additional questions that I asked him to address. I have not seen the answers to those questions. And so I'm looking forward to seeing his assessment.
I think that his assessment, without having read it, I suspect is going to point to the challenges that remain before us in Afghanistan. I think it will also point to areas where we can do better and can make improvements in our strategy and tactics. There is no question that we have a tough fight in front of us in Afghanistan and a lot of challenges.
By the same token, I think a lot of positive things have been happening in terms of getting more American troops into place. There are more European and partner troops in place now. There are nearly 37,000 partner nation troops in Afghanistan.
The elections took place in a country torn by war for 30 years, and the fact that those elections were able to take place I think is an important thing.
The fact that we're going into areas where the Taliban have basically been unchallenged for a number of years means that our casualties are going to be higher. I am concerned that we -- I haven't discussed this with respect to the assessment, but I am concerned about getting assets into Afghanistan to help us deal with the IED problem. I expect that the all-terrain MRAP will begin flowing to Afghanistan in October. And we are in the process of putting significant additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities there as well. It worked well for us in Iraq in dealing with the IED problem, and we're all hoping that they'll help us in Afghanistan as well.
But while there's a lot of gloom and doom going around, I think that General McChrystal's assessment will be a realistic one and set forth the challenges we have in front of us. At the same time, I think we have some assets in place and some developments that hold promise.
Q President Obama just said he wanted to send 20,000 more troops there, which would bring the total to more than 68,000. And the general's recommendation and his assessment also is to bring in even more troops than that. That goes along the lines with what you're saying, but you didn't specify specifically that he recommended more troops. A lot of those would come from this area. Any ideas? Do you support that? I know you haven't seen the assessment, but do you think that would be additionally required as well?
SEC. GATES: Well, I have not only not seen the assessment, I have not seen any recommendations yet from General McChrystal. We have been very explicit that General McChrystal should be forthright in telling us what he needs in order to accomplish the mission that he has been given. And we will look at his assessment, and then we will look at the resource recommendations that he makes.
I think there are larger issues. I have expressed some concerns in the past about the size of the American footprint, the size of the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan. And clearly, I want to address those issues. And we will have to look at the availability of forces, we'll have to look at costs. There are a lot of different things that we'll have to look at, once we get his recommendations, before we make any recommendations to the president.
Q Sir, the Joint Estimating Team has come up with a different price for the JSF program that's higher. Do you have any concerns that this program might meet with a non-recurring situation where you have to go through a review and compare it with other airframes? And what do you think is the likelihood that might happen, given the information you were told today?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don't think I want to get specific about that, because frankly, I don't know the specifics that go into that, or into the assessment that was made. I know that there were some assumptions made in putting together that estimate that others have some disagreements with in terms of assumptions.
My impression is that most of the high-risk elements associated with this developmental program are largely behind us, and I felt a good deal of confidence on the part of the leadership here that the manufacturing process, that the supply chain, that the issues associated with all of these have been addressed or are being addressed.
So I'm -- I think that to the degree the planes that are being assembled here could have significant additional cost growth, you know, you never know in these programs. And it has had its challenges, but I would tell you that virtually every modern tactical aircraft has had its challenges as well in the developmental part.
And I think people who've been associated with these programs -- for example, as I testified on the Hill last spring, out of the flight tests that have been flown, 75 percent or so -- 75 to 80 percent -- have been characterized as code 1, or mission capable, which is a significantly better record than most comparable development programs.
So I can't stand here and say there won't be further cost growth or anything like that, but I think everybody is aware of the importance both of the timelines and the execution of this program to keep the cost as low as possible.
We talked about trade-offs in other programs with respect to the alternate engine a minute ago. Well, every dollar additional to the budget that we have to put into the F-35 is a dollar taken from something else that the troops may need. So it's as important to watch the costs here as it is on everything else.
Q Joel Thomas with CBS here in town. Getting to the human factor of the labor force, have you been able to identify how many people would be affected as F-22 draws down and F-35 production ramps up. And regarding that, seeing what you've seen today, are you going to be able to ramp up faster to help those employees who will be displaced with F-22?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would leave -- I would leave the answers to those questions to the -- to the Lockheed Martin management. I think they're in a much better position than I am to evaluate how they are going to use their workforce. There clearly -- as the production of this aircraft ramps up, there clearly will be significant additional jobs here for that purpose -- several times the number of people who are already working on this program, as I understood it this morning. So I think there's going to be some significant opportunities.
And I would just repeat what I said at the outset. One of the things that impressed me the most as I toured the assembly line was the commitment and quality of the men and women who are working on this airplane. And what I also found interesting is the blending of people who have been here 25 and 30 years with a number of people who have just come in recent years. So you've got new ideas, fresh faces, along with a lot of skilled, experienced people, and also, clearly, and much -- very gratifying to me -- a significant number of veterans.
So, one last?
Q Mr. Secretary, the overall cost of the plane in the future years, is this something the government will continue to be able to afford, given all of the other resource pressures we're seeing among the -- at the Pentagon and elsewhere?
SEC. GATES: I think that the F-35 is at root the core of our combat tactical aircraft in the future. Our planned buy of these airplanes at this point is in the neighborhood of between 24 and 25 hundred, with hundreds more being purchased by our foreign partners. This is a huge program -- talking overall 3,000-plus aircraft over the lifetime of the program.
I think that the fact that we have a(n) aircraft that has many common components for all three services is important in terms of potential cost savings. This aircraft at full production is less than half the price, for example, of the F-22.
And I guess I would say my view is we cannot afford, as a nation, not to have this airplane.
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