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Air Force Maj. Chris Finch operates an F-35 simulator on June 22, 2015, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Lockheed Martin is sponsoring a tour of the fifth-generation fighter jet's simulator at several bases in Europe. The first U.S. F-35s in Europe are expected to be based at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom beginning in 2020.

Air Force Maj. Chris Finch operates an F-35 simulator on June 22, 2015, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Lockheed Martin is sponsoring a tour of the fifth-generation fighter jet's simulator at several bases in Europe. The first U.S. F-35s in Europe are expected to be based at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom beginning in 2020. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

Air Force Maj. Chris Finch operates an F-35 simulator on June 22, 2015, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Lockheed Martin is sponsoring a tour of the fifth-generation fighter jet's simulator at several bases in Europe. The first U.S. F-35s in Europe are expected to be based at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom beginning in 2020.

Air Force Maj. Chris Finch operates an F-35 simulator on June 22, 2015, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Lockheed Martin is sponsoring a tour of the fifth-generation fighter jet's simulator at several bases in Europe. The first U.S. F-35s in Europe are expected to be based at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom beginning in 2020. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

Multiple screens are lit up on the cockpit of the F-35 simulator. The simulator was at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Monday, June 22, 2015, for airmen to try out.

Multiple screens are lit up on the cockpit of the F-35 simulator. The simulator was at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Monday, June 22, 2015, for airmen to try out. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, operates an F-35 simulator on June 22, 2015, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Lockheed Martin is sponsoring a tour of the fifth-generation fighter jet's simulator at several bases in Europe. The first U.S. F-35s in Europe are expected to be based at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom beginning in 2020.

Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes

Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, operates an F-35 simulator on June 22, 2015, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Lockheed Martin is sponsoring a tour of the fifth-generation fighter jet's simulator at several bases in Europe. The first U.S. F-35s in Europe are expected to be based at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom beginning in 2020. Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Troops at some bases in Europe are getting a rare glimpse inside an F-35 Lightning II cockpit, albeit from the stationary vantage point of a somewhat stripped-down unclassified simulator.

Lockheed Martin, the company producing the embattled fifth-generation fighter, is sponsoring the simulator tour to a handful of U.S. military installations in Europe, although the first planes are not due to arrive on the continent until 2020.

Airmen at Ramstein, including U.S. Air Forces in Europe–Air Forces Africa commander, Gen. Frank Gorenc, had the chance to “fly” the simulator Monday set up in a room at the Officers Club.

Since its inception in 2001, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has become the most expensive weapons program in Pentagon history at a price tag of so far more than $400 billion. Lockheed Martin and military leaders supporting the program tout its technological advances, saying it will give the U.S. military an edge in air superiority that’s slowly been eroding in recent years. But the program has been plagued by major design flaws and cost overruns, among other issues, and the jet has yet to test its operational mettle in combat.

Gorenc thanked the contractors, most of them former military fighter pilots, “for allowing our airmen not just to talk about it and to think about it, but to actually sit in it, and get a feeling for what it is that’s going to be delivered.”

Officials announced in January that RAF Lakenheath would be the first USAFE base to get the jets. The current plan calls for the base to eventually stand up two F-35 squadrons of 24 aircraft each, said Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a USAFE spokeswoman.

Where else the plane may be assigned in Europe hasn’t been announced, she said.

The purpose of the simulator tour is to get people “excited about what capabilities they’ll have in the future,” Klinkel said. “This is the future of the Air Force. It brings a lot more capabilities that we don’t currently have, even with the F-22. The advanced capabilities help us take the next fight to the next level.”

Lockheed contractor Bob DuLaney said the plane costs are coming down, as production ramps up. By 2019, the company expects the plane to cost about the same to produce as a fourth-generation jet fighter, such as the F-16.

“All the nations that are in the program are still in the program,” he said. “Nobody’s bailed out.”

“Technology is a wonderful thing,” Gorenc said. “It’s been 10 years really since the F-22 came out and the F-35 came out. Think about how the smartphone has changed in four years, and so yeah, this is a machine that’s able to incorporate all of the technology available.”

Maj. Chris Finch, an F-16 pilot who works as Gorenc’s aide de camp, took a spin in the simulator.

“In my five minutes in the cockpit, I would say it’s going to fly really nicely,” he said.

If he had to fly it for real, “I could keep it airborne, but being a sensor manager is really what you’d be doing in that aircraft, so all the screens, all the buttons, the capabilities that jet has, far exceeds what I had in the F-16.”

The simulator was to remain at Ramstein Tuesday, then be moved to Patch Barracks in Stuttgart Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and on to Naples, Italy, from June 28 to July 1, at U.S. Naval Forces in Europe headquarters.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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