Defense Secretary Gates signals support for F-35 fighter

FORT WORTH — Right on cue, an F-35 roared over Lockheed Martin on Monday morning, just as Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered what might have been his strongest endorsement yet of the joint strike fighter.

"The F-35 is the core of our combat tactical aircraft in the future," Gates said while standing in a hangar in front of a newly built F-35 Lightning II. "My view is we cannot afford as a nation not to have this airplane."

Gates, who has summarily canceled more than a few weapons programs for cost overruns and extensive delays, arrived at the plant with thousands of employees awaiting his judgment on whether the F-35 program is worth the escalating price in a time of worsening budget pressures.

His visit to the mile-long plant — the spot where B-24 Liberators to F-16 Fighting Falcons have been assembled since the 1940s — was the first for a defense secretary since Donald Rumsfeld made in appearance in 1976, during the Ford administration.

Gates' visit was significant to M.L. Smith, a 30-year mechanic at the facility and representative in the International Association of Machinists, and not just because he was asked to explain the integrated power package to him.

"It signals to the people on this line that our government is backing the JSF," Smith said.

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