Graham F-35

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks to the press gathered at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, in Eastover for a press conference with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, Air Force chief of Staff David Goldfein, and Adjutant General Robert Livingston held on October 27, 2017. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

EASTOVER — In what seems to be an increasingly common occurrence for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Seneca Republican was in a meeting Friday when President Donald Trump called. This time, the chat focused on airplanes.

While meeting with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale, and Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, Graham used the president's call to loop him into the conversation and pitch him on the benefits of F-35 stealth fighter jets. 

Known for his hawkish stance on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham said he told Trump that he doesn't want any U.S. military engagement to be a fair fight.

"I want the Chinese and the Russians and any other nation-state to know that if you go to air against the United States Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps, you're not coming back," Graham said. "That means we need to invest in new platforms."

A one-time harsh critic of the F-35 program due to what he complained were ballooning costs, Trump has since appeared to come around on the fighter jets. Even Graham acknowledges the F-35 procurement system is "broken," but that doesn't stop him from emphasizing the stealth jet's value to the future of American readiness.

Graham also reiterated his long-held opposition to budget caps imposed on the Department of Defense. Sequestration, the technical term for the spending limits, has been a focus of the Pentagon's ire for years and a particularly controversial issue in South Carolina, which has several prominent military bases including McEntire.

Asked if he is working to get Congress to remove those budget caps, Graham suggested "working" would be a dramatic understatement.

"I am going to blow up the friggin' place," he said, vowing to "make life miserable" for anyone that tries to cut military spending. "If you want the government to shut down because we can't pass a budget, then keep the defense caps in place."

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Between Wilson's high-ranking role on the House Armed Services Committee and Graham's spot on the Senate companion, the pair of South Carolinians hope to use their influence to secure a future batch of F-35s for the Palmetto State.

But McEntire, the home of the 169th fighter wing "Swamp Foxes," was passed over for the next two rounds of the new, state-of-the-art jets, unable to even earn a spot as a finalist for the F-35s as it did in 2013 before losing out to a base in Vermont.

Goldfein noted that McEntire held several advantages, like its "exquisite range space" and proximity to bases from all four other branches of the military. But because of the relatively new F-16 jets at the base, Graham explained, it didn't make the final cut.

Still, Graham said he's confident new F-35s can come to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and McEntire in Eastover — if he can get those spending increases he wants.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.