The New York Times - January 20, 2012, By THOM SHANKER
NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited a flight testing center along the shores of Chesapeake Bay on Friday to give a lift to the beleaguered F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, announcing that he was taking the Marine Corps version of the costly warplane off probation.
Mr. Panetta’s decision to embrace the F-35, one of the most expensive weapons efforts in history, comes as the Defense Department has been ordered to cut at least $485 billion from the its budget over the next decade.
“We need to make sure we are on the cutting edge,” Mr. Panetta said in describing his personal support, and that of the Pentagon, for next-generation war-fighting technology, including the F-35 jet fighter program.
Mr. Panetta said that the F-35 was “absolutely vital to maintaining our air superiority,” but cautioned that it was important “to get this right.”
He said there had been enough progress in fixing technical problems that he could reverse the decision by his predecessor, Robert M. Gates, to put the plane on a probationary testing status.
The Marine Corps version is especially complex because it is designed to take off from the shortest of runways, such as a rough strip of land or the deck of a smaller warship, and to land vertically, like a helicopter.
Designing a stealthy, advanced fighter that can perform those feats has been daunting and costly. The F-35’s estimated overall cost is $382 billion for up to 2,456 planes. The radar-evading aircraft will also have versions for the Air Force and the Navy.
Shortly after Mr. Panetta’s announcement, Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, released a statement praising the decision.
“I welcome the secretary of defense’s announcement removing the F-35B Lightning II from ‘probation’ and granting it full status commensurate with the other two variants of the Joint Strike Fighter,” General Amos said. “I continue to be encouraged by the strong and steady progress that the F-35B team has made over the past year.”
When Mr. Gates announced the plane’s probation last year, he said the program should be canceled if it did not show progress within two years.
Among the serious problems that led to Mr. Gates’s decision were insufficient intake of air via a duct to the engine and an unacceptable wobbling when the jet hovered over a landing spot.
Mr. Panetta’s decision to lift the probation on the Marine Corps version reflected an assessment of progress — but also the importance to the Marine Corps of coming up with a replacement for its Harrier jump-jet, which has proved its value in countering insurgencies and terrorists in rugged, remote areas. The Marine Corps’ F-35 version would be the only American jet fighter to replicate the aging Harrier’s capability for short takeoff and vertical landing.
Even so, Pentagon officials and industry analysts expect that when Mr. Panetta releases the Defense Department’s official budget proposals, he will call for postponing the purchase of a large number of the F-35s sought by the various branches.
That option would allow the factories to stay open — protecting jobs — while giving the prime manufacturer, the Lockheed Martin Corporation, more time to work out problems with the jet.
Just as important, it would allow the military to delay tens of billions of dollars in spending at a time when Mr. Panetta must come up with plans to cut about $485 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next decade.
On Friday, Mr. Panetta spoke in a hangar where a Navy version of the F-35 was on display at one end, while at the other was the Marine Corps variant — its troubled engine intake door yawning wide open for display.
The latest F-35 flight test — seeking to correct a problem in the air intake door was successfully completed last week.
Capt. Erik Etz of the Navy, who serves as director of testing and evaluation for the Navy variants of the F-35, said the program had shown improved rates of actual testing time and, over all, had tallied more than 2,300 hours during more than 1,400 flights.
Work continues on fixing the tail-hook system on the Navy variant, which must take off and land on carriers, as well as solving troubles with the helmet and the night-vision system.
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