SUFFOLK — U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes took the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter up for a spin Tuesday.
He performed a barrel roll, shot down an enemy plane and safely landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier -- all without loosening his tie or breaking into a sweat.
His trip was a cyber journey in a cockpit simulator set up by Lockheed Martin at its Center for Innovation. Retired aviators, political leaders and others looked on as the lawmaker handled the controls, with an expert nearby giving him advice. When Forbes was done, the others had their chance.
Forbes, a lawyer by training, joked beforehand that no one should judge the prowess of the new plane by his performance. His wife had warned him not to hurt the plane.
"I'll just tell her I didn't crash," he said afterward with a smile. "That's the best I can do."
While the Chesapeake Republican went to the center to sing the praises of the new aircraft, he had another mission, too.
Forbes pressed his case -- one that he's been making for years -- that the steady decline in defense spending, particularly automatic budget cuts begun in 2013, are weakening national security.
He has been critical of the Obama administration, which he says has mandated cuts without first developing a defense strategy.
"We pull budget numbers out of the air and we just say, 'Here, this is what we want to spend for defending freedom and defending the United States. Now make it work,' " he said after exiting the cockpit.
The congressman, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. has dominated aerial warfare for a half-century but could lose that advantage if it puts budget-cutting ahead of national security.
The F-35 is one of the Pentagon's priciest weapons programs.
The projected acquisition cost has risen 71 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since Lockheed was awarded the contract in 2001, according to Bloomberg News. The projected program cost is now $399 billion.
The Pentagon said earlier this month that budget cuts would force it to buy 17 fewer F-35s than originally planned between 2016 and 2019. Fifteen would be cut from the Air Force and two from the Navy.
Reducing the number of planes ordered will hurt Lockheed's efforts to keep down the cost of each plane, said Robert Rubino, director of the company's Navy F-35 program.
Forbes said the Pentagon needs to be audited to get better control of spending and that he's willing to debate how many F-35s or aircraft carriers should be built to ensure security.
"There will be reasonable people who disagree," he said. "But we're not close to that yet because what we're doing is allowing the budget to drive our stategy.... It's dangerous for the country."
The Tuesday event served as Lockheed's update on development of the fifth-generation fighter. It is building three variations of the same stealth fighter, known as the Lightning II, for use by the Navy, Marines and Air Force.
The Navy's F-35 has a larger wingspan and equipment to allow for carrier landings, while the Marines' version can make vertical landings and operate with shorter takeoffs from the deck of an amphibious ship.
The Marines' F-35s will be operational in 2015.
And later that year, the Navy is expected to begin sea trials of its new fighter aboard the carrier Nimitz, Rubino said.
Navy pilots have begun training with F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.