Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will lift a yearlong “probation” imposed on the most complex model of Lockheed Martin’s Corp’s F-35 fighter jet, according to a U.S. official.
Panetta will announce he is satisfied with the progress of the F-35B during a visit tomorrow to its test facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the announcement.
The B model is the most complex version of the fighter and is being watched as a bellwether for the $382 billion F-35 program, the Pentagon’s most costly. The Marine Corps plans to buy about 340 of the aircraft that can take off like a conventional fighter and land like a helicopter.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided in January 2011 to put the Marine Corps jet on what was then envisioned to be a two-year “probation” to give Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed more time to demonstrate the fighter’s reliability.
Lockheed rose 1.7 percent to $83.64 at 3:36 p.m. in New York trading.
The fighter jet should be taken off probation because of the results in testing last year, Marine Corps General James Amos said in a letter to Panetta dated Jan. 10 and obtained today.
“Since the F-35B program is moving forward without any unique issues that require additional scrutiny, I am recommending rescission of the probation,” Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said.
Amos, who tracks the aircraft’s testing and assembly progress from a computer terminal at his desk, said he was “confident the F-35B’s development and testing is on track,” citing what he said was “excellent progress” during tests designed to assess it ground and sea-based operations.
Gates, Panetta’s predecessor, said last year that the F-35B was “experiencing significant testing problems” that “could lead to a redesign of the aircraft’s structure and propulsion — changes that could add yet more weight and more cost to an aircraft that has little capacity to absorb.”
“If we cannot fix this variant during this time and get back on track in terms of performance, cost and schedule, then I believe it should be canceled,” Gates said.
By Tony Capaccio
January 19th, 2012