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Lockheed Martin charges ahead with Viper

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Government, military and Lockheed Martin representatives touted the Greenville F-16 workforce as not only another player in the Upstate’s manufacturing scene, but also a key player in world peace.

Officials from the White House and U.S. Congress joined state and local politicians and the U.S. Air Force in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new place to build a stalwart aircraft that has found renewed life as a weapon for America’s allies.

According to Air Force Col. Anthony Walker, the F-16 was thought to be headed into its twilight years before plans emerged to move production to Greenville so the reliable jet fighter can be manufactured for international customers. The first customer is the Bahrain air force. Other countries are in various stages of negotiation to place orders, with Bulgaria, Morocco and Slovakia farther down the road than most.

Greenville will be the only place in the world where F-16s are made, according to Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Leslie Farmer. The latest configuration of the jet is the F-16 Block 70. Sub-component assembly will begin in November and the first aircraft will be loaded into the Greenville production line in December, she said. It will take about two years to produce the first one and the current schedule calls for production of one plane every month. More orders could mean quickening the pace, Farmer said.

Walker said 1,950 F-16s are in service to other governments and President Donald Trump’s White House policies have opened doors to give a second wind to what he called “pound for pound the best fighter around.” He called F-16s, which were first produced in 1975, the “backbone” of the U.S. Air Force, making up nearly half of the branch’s fighter aircraft today.

Since it was first developed, the F-16 was produced in Fort Worth, Texas. That facility is not closing, however. The F-35 is already manufactured in Forth Worth and moving F-16 production to Greenville increases the company’s F-35 capacity, White House economic adviser Peter Navarro said.

The Greenville Lockheed Martin facility includes 16 hangars and 1.1 million square feet of covered space. It has been a sustainment center for more than 35 years, but not a production site.

“We are proud and excited to welcome you all here today as we celebrate this site, this community and this state becoming the new home of the F-16 production line,” Lockheed Martin site director Michael Fox said at the Greenville ceremony. “The F-16 Fighting Falcon’s legacy spans over 40 years and has become one of the most iconic fighter jets ever. … Today we mark the beginning of the next chapter.”

That next chapter means putting the aircraft in the hands of allies who can protect American interests by protecting themselves, said Michelle Evans, executive vice president for Lockheed Martin.

“We see a bright future as we continue to look at global security and the growth of the F-16 around the world,” she said. “We understand that this aircraft remains a critical tool for military cooperation with many of our allies and as we know it has helped maintain peace and stability in some of the most difficult regions of the world. I still marvel at what this aircraft has done but even more so at what it will do in the future: protect the United States armed forces as well as the men and women in uniform from trusted allies.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham was more blunt: “The one thing I’ve learned about this war that we’re in is I want to keep it over there so it doesn’t come here. I don’t want to fight it alone. I want to fight it with partners. So to the workforce here, the jets that you’re building here in Greenville will go in the hands of American allies that will be making America safer. That’s a great way to make a living.”

Since 1975, 4,588 F-16s have been produced and about 3,000 of them are still operational today, Evans said. They are spread across 28 countries.

Gov. Henry McMaster said the F-16 joins a large aerospace industry in South Carolina. He said there are 400 aerospace companies in the state, employing more than 22,000 people.

“Last year we exported approximately $7.9 billion in aircraft, ranking us fifth in the nation in export sales of aircraft, spacecraft and related parts,” he said.

Reach Ross Norton at 864-720-1222.

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