Several Republican senators are making the case that the U.S.-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program should be expanded with additional foreign sales to create a stronger coalition of allies.
In a letter sent to Defense Secretary Mark Esper this week, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said the U.S. would benefit by having more F-35s on flight lines around the world.
"The National Defense Strategy makes clear that the United States must strengthen its alliances and attract new partners in order to adapt to the long-term, strategic competition posed by China and Russia," the letter states. "We believe that expanding the F-35 program offers an important means to accomplish this, especially to governments in good standing with the United States that are threatened by China and Russia."
Other signers of the letter included Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas; Tom Cotton of Arkansas; Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee; Susan Collins of Maine; Mike Lee of Utah; and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
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Additional foreign military sales could also boost economic growth, the lawmakers said.
Foreign governments would not only get "the most advanced, multi-role fighter jet in the world," they would also "deepen their defense ties with the United States, increase their military's interoperability with our own, and enhance their capacity to deter foreign aggression," they said.
"In return for all of this, the United States strengthens its security and receives a boost to American jobs, exports, and the defense industrial base."
Many of the lawmakers have a local interest in expanding the F-35 program: For example, Florida is home to F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base, which is part of the pilot training pipeline. Vice President Mike Pence also announced this week that F-35s are officially coming to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida's Panhandle, beginning in 2023. Aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin's main assembly line is located in Fort Worth, Texas, and has 91 supplier locations in the state, according to the company's website.
The lawmakers' call for expansion comes shortly after the Pentagon lost one of its F-35 NATO partner nations.
The Defense Department last month officially booted Turkey from participating in the program because of its recent purchase of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air-missile systems.
"Turkey was part of an anticipated $2.2 trillion in partner and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) of the joint strike fighter," the senators wrote. "Turkey planned to purchase 100 of the fifth-generation aircraft, and to receive over $9 billion in projected work related to the F-35 over the life of the program. By proceeding with the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense missile system, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has elected to forgo these benefits."
It's not the first time this year that lawmakers are calling for action regarding the F-35 program.
In March, Connecticut lawmakers urged then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to push forward with steady procurement of the F-35 in future budget cycles amid growing interest from the Defense Department in investing in the F-15EX fourth-plus generation fighter.
Connecticut Democrats Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Chris Murphy were concerned that a reduction in procurement would slow engine production for the aircraft. Pratt & Whitney manufactures the jet's F135 engine at facilities in East Hartford and Middletown, Connecticut.
A month earlier, Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Cruz of Texas joined Rubio and Collins in signing a similar letter urging the DoD not to decrease F-35 procurement amid reports a new F-15 would someday join the Air Force's inventory. The letter was also signed by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whose state includes Eielson Air Force Base, where two F-35 squadrons are scheduled to be based starting in 2020.
The most recent letter, dated Aug. 6, encourages the DoD to increase its F-35 FMS, given that "accession into the F-35 partnership program closed in 2002."
Belgium and Poland are recent customers, but not official program partners.
Japan has expressed interest in becoming a formal program partner, entailing a larger role in the aircraft's capability development, according to a recent report from Defense News. But it's likely the Pentagon will not grant such a request for fear other customer nations would also demand greater access in the program, Defense News reported.
A spokesman for Lockheed Martin on Friday had no comment regarding potential new partners, or on whether the company is pursuing larger partnership roles for certain countries.
"We understand that future F-35 expansion will likely be achieved by adding new FMS countries or increasing sales to countries already in the F-35 program," the senators wrote. "We applaud reports indicating that your department is already taking some of these steps and encourage you to broaden those efforts, understanding that any countries potentially purchasing the F-35 must not acquire the S-400 or similar systems too."