Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made very few visits to defense plants what with two wars on, a tight budget and many soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to visit. Suddenly, at the end of a very quiet August, Gates' office sends out a notice today to reporters saying he's going Monday to Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter factory in Fort Worth, where he will take a tour, chat with employees and talk briefly with the press.
Some of the national press will be flying down with the secretary and a heap of Texas media are expected to be on hand, I hear. Why now? Well, as one person familiar with the trip put it -- it's August -- but there's also the fundamental fact that Gates killed the F-22 and has most of his remaining fighter eggs in the F-35 program. That leaves him vulnerable should the F-35 be late or grow in cost.
And there's the fact that the first batches of F-35s are going to be very expensive if you cost them plane by plane -- even more expensive than the current batch of F-22s --and Gates is going to have to defend those costs in the face of F-22 and F-18 supporters on Capitol Hill and in industry. We hear a major newspaper is preparing a story along these lines and that Gates' trip may, at least in part, be an effort to counter any blowback from the story.
In addition to his visit to the JSF plant, Gates is going to Greenville, Texas, to visit the L3 Communications plant where they are equipping MC-12 Liberty aircraft to operate in Afghanistan. After that, the secretary travels to Houston where he will give the keys to a new house for a wounded soldier.