Air Force chief links F-35 fighter jet to China

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force Secretary, drawing an unusually explicit link to China, said on Wednesday the United States should stick with a $299 billion plan to buy more than 2,400 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets.

Michael Wynne, who runs the Air Force as its top civilian, rejected a prominent research group’s call to consider slashing by as much as half the planned purchase -- the Pentagon’s costliest weapons-buying plan.

“How big do you think China is?” he said, pausing for effect. “Twenty-one B-2s. Think about that,” he said referring to the limited number of advanced Northrop Grumman Corp bombers in the U.S. arsenal.

“I need the Joint Strike Fighter to come along,” Wynne told a forum organized by the private Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which called for the possible deep cuts on the ground the F-35 lacks the range needed to fight a potential foe like China.

Pentagon planners, in a strategic road map last year as part of a once-every-four year review, singled out China’s rise to great power status as a potential threat to U.S. military predominance.

Possible points of conflict include Taiwan, military supremacy in Asia and worldwide competition for oil and other scarce resources.

In alluding to China’s vast land mass, Wynne drew a rarely stated public link between China and the Pentagon’s core plan for upgrading U.S. air power for decades to come.

The Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 multi-role, radar-evading, F-35s through 2034 in three models as a replacement for the F-16 fighter and a range of other warplanes.

Key F-35 subcontractors include Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems Plc . Interchangeable engines are being built by United Technologies Corp’s Pratt & Whitney unit, on the one hand, and a team of General Electric Co and Britain’s Rolls-Royce Plc, on the other.

Wynne did not address the center’s arguments about the implications of the F-35’s relatively short range in any future conflict with China.

Acquiring so many F-35s “now seems neither affordable nor needed, and the U.S. buy can probably be reduced by as much as 50 percent without driving unit costs through the roof or abandoning close allies,” the center’s study said.

Eight countries -- Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway -- have joined the United States to fund the single-seat, single-engine F-35.

Wynne faulted critics he did not name for saying, as he put it, “Let’s not buy too many of these. Let’s throw our partners under the bus” and invest in longer-range ways to attack.

Expanding on other U.S. officials’ comments, Wynne said China’s shootdown of one of its own weather satellites had been intended as a warning to the United States.

The January 11 use of a ground-based ballistic missile to destroy a low-orbit satellite was “just to tell us -- little message: ‘Don’t think you’re safe up there. Space is not a sanctuary any more’.”

He said China’s antisatellite test -- its first, decades after the United States and Soviet Union halted their own -- was an “egregious act” that had created 15,000 bits of new debris.

The United States relies heavily on space for military superiority, high speed communications and monitoring threats to strategic stability.