The stealthy and controversial F-35C fighter jet will replace the F/A-18 Super Hornets commonly seen buzzing over Boca Chica Field, but the question is when.
Their arrival appears to be at least four years away, but that figure is in no way set in stone.
Navy leadership announced in March that it was cutting its order for the new jets nearly in half over the next five years, starting in the fiscal year 2015, due to budget concerns surrounding the jet, which has been plagued by cost overruns, delays and development problems.
The Navy had planned to buy 69 of the aircraft carrier variant of the jet, but now it intends to buy 36, said Lt. Robert Myers, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon. The problem is not with the plane's performance, but with fiscal issues surrounding the program, officials say.
The Navy is also waiting for specific computer software for the plane, called Block 3F software, Myers said. The software is "required for full warfighting capability, including but not limited to data link imagery, full weapons and embedded training," according to the manufacturer's (Lockheed Martin Corp.) website.
"The Navy is aligning F-35C inventory requirements which enable our Initial Operational Capability (IOC) between the range of 2018 to 2019," Myers said in an email to The Citizen. "This was a prudent decision given our current budget environment and alignment with the Block 3F software/hardware package required for IOC. We continue to explore and evaluate potential F-35C base locations as the program develops."
In other words, the Navy isn't sure which airfields will see the F-35C first until the first planes leave the assembly line.
The Navy is buying the F-35C variant -- the first stealth aircraft for the Navy -- but the Air Force and Marines are also buying other versions of the plane. The jet will be America's primary fighter jet in the years ahead matched only by the Air Force-only air superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor.
Overall, the F-35 program is $163 billion over budget -- it is expected to cost some $400 billion in total -- and some seven years behind schedule. It represents the most expensive Pentagon weapons system ever, according to published defense watchdog reports.
Locally, the F-35 is controversial because Monroe County contends the current F/A-18 Super Hornet was never properly evaluated in terms of noise studies, but the Navy has long held that it did study Super Hornet noise, and that its research met legal guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Watching the issue closely is Key Largo resident and former Navy sailor John Hammerstrom, who is also a member of the county's Environmental Impact Study Committee, which studied the F/A-18 Super Hornet closely as part of that committee.
Much of that discussion revolved around the arrival of the F-35C and how loud it will be compared to the current planes.
"My guess is that they will show up at some time, but not in the same numbers," as first expected, Hammerstrom said of the F-35C.
Regardless of one's view of the F-35, the Pentagon isn't backing down from the program said, John Pike, a national security analyst and director and founder of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington, D.C.-based military think tank.
"A decade from now there will only be two types of airplanes: Stealth airplanes and targets," Pike said.