Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was busy here yesterday on his first visit to this Air Force base on the Florida panhandle, talking to pilots from the 33rd Fighter Wing, meeting with and thanking service members and briefing local and national reporters.
The visit was one of three stops on a two-day trip that also included visits to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia and Fort Rucker, Alabama.
Announcing the trip earlier this week, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said Hagel wants to ensure the Defense Department stays focused on long-term concerns affecting American interests and allies in Asia, Europe and worldwide.
The secretary made the visit despite the July 3 grounding of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter fleet after a fire that occurred in an aircraft on the runway here.
“The [F-35 engine] inspections are complete, and I got a good report this morning from some of the pilots and the maintenance people on their thinking about [the fire],” Hagel told reporters here. Separate safety and accident investigations prompted by the fire are ongoing, an Eglin public affairs officer said.
“We're not going to put the F-35 in the air [or] send it anywhere until we are absolutely convinced and know that it's safe to fly,” Hagel said. “As to timing, I'll leave that up to the experts, who will come back to us and make a recommendation.”
Hagel has prioritized investment in the F-35 because the multirole aircraft has advanced capabilities that he and others agree are essential to maintain the nation’s aerial dominance and confront emerging threats, Defense Department officials said.
The 33rd Fighter Wing here is home to the F-35 Integrated Training Center, which is responsible for training F-35 pilots and maintainers for the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Air Force and some international partners. The aircraft has three variants, designated as the A, B and C models. The first F-35 arrived at Eglin in July 2011. Today, the base has 49.
The United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have aircraft personnel, maintenance personnel and pilots in training, and the center has graduated six international pilots and 57 international maintainers, officials said.
The 58th Fighter Squadron here became the Air Force’s first complete F-35A squadron after the 33rd Fighter Wing received its 26th. The wing continues to build toward initial operational capability in 2016, officials said.
So far, the F-35 program has delivered 97 aircraft -- 28 to test units and 69 to operational or training units. Together, the aircraft have logged more than 16,000 flight hours, DoD officials said.
For fiscal year 2015, the Navy requested $3.3 billion for eight aircraft -- two for the Navy, six for the Marine Corps -- and the Air Force wants 26 aircraft for $4.6 billion. Over the Future Years Defense Program, the Navy requested 105 aircraft for $22.9 billion and the Air Force wants 238 aircraft for $31.7 billion.
After speaking with the 33rd Fighter Wing pilots, the secretary got a feel for sitting in the cockpit of an F-35 -- “SECDEF CHUCK HAGEL” was printed in white on the aircraft’s stealthy gray surface -- and then spent some time with the airmen here.
“I appreciate, first, the opportunity to say hello, to bring you greetings from President [Barack] Obama and the people of the Defense Department, but also to tell you how much we appreciate what you do and the hard work, the effort, the sacrifice, the service that you give our country,” Hagel told about 180 service members. "And I know it's important to you, because you wouldn't be doing this job if you didn't feel pretty strongly about our country. I want you to know we know that.
“I want to thank your families,” he continued, “and I want you, in particular, to tell your families and your spouses how much we appreciate their sacrifice and what they do to support you.”
Hagel spoke about his experience in the F-35 and seeing his name on the side of the aircraft below the cockpit.
“They didn't let me push any buttons this morning,” he joked, “but they gave me a very good sense of this aircraft, its capabilities, what it can do [and] how important it's going to be to our security.”
The secretary also described his meeting with the Navy and Marine Corps F-35 pilots and maintenance chiefs and the questions he asked them about the aircraft: Do they have confidence in the aircraft? Can it do what its proponents believe it can do?
“We went around the table, and I told them I needed clear, direct and honest answers,” the secretary said. “And they were clear, direct and honest with me on what they thought about a lot of things -- in particular, the aircraft.”
Hagel said he appreciated their evaluations, which made it clear that they had tremendous confidence in the aircraft.
“Some of the pilots told me it was the best aircraft they'd ever flown. Some said it was the easiest and simplest aircraft they'd ever flown,” he said. “I was particularly happy to hear that, “because I believe this aircraft is the future for our fighter aircraft for our services.”
Hagel said he knows there are issues with the F-35.
“I don't know of a platform that we've ever had -- that we've ever designed … and then put into service -- that didn't go through issues,” he said. Safety is the first priority, he added.
Hagel also spoke about the shrinking defense budget and the prospect of sequestration -- massive spending cuts that will resume in fiscal year 2016 unless Congress changes the current budget law. The Defense Department is working with Congress to try to prevent what he called the worst results of abrupt and indiscriminate spending cuts, the secretary told the service members.
“I know the world today … is as complicated and dangerous as maybe it's ever been -- as you know, because many of you have served all over the world,” he said. “This puts … pressures on all of us to deal with these threats and dangers in a wise way, a steady way, that assures our security.”
Such difficult days can offer opportunities to adjust and recalibrate and to do things that will make everyone stronger in how they think and respond, the secretary added.
“As we come down out of this second long war, … there's always a natural reset and process,” Hagel said. “But I think it's important that we all understand that steady, wise, careful leadership is required today by the United States, maybe more than at any time in your careers.”
The F-35 program involves such working with U.S. partners and helping those partners build capability and strong relationships, Hagel said. The F-35's nine partner countries are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Many partners have ordered their first aircraft, and pilots and maintainers from the United Kingdom took delivery of their first F-35B jets here, where they train with their U.S. counterparts. Israel and Japan chose the F-35A through the Foreign Military Sales process.
“We are doing things we've never done before in building partnerships and helping our partners develop capabilities to deal with threats,” Hagel said, noting work that all of the services are doing with U.S. partners around the globe.
“We'll always be the senior partner, but we need partners,” the secretary added. “We always need friends around the world and people around the world who are willing to work with us, and we're willing to work with them.”
Later, in response to a question from a local reporter about the prospects for Eglin’s future, Hagel called the Florida panhandle an important area of the country for the defense establishment.
Other major military bases in the immediate area include the Pensacola Naval Air Station, home of naval aviation in the United States, Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach, and Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City.
The training, history, support, tradition, facilities and infrastructure add up to what the secretary called “a strong future for a very close relationship with the Defense Department and this part of the country, in particular this part of Florida.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)