Insider: Panetta Expected to End F-35's Probation

F-35 may make the cut despite projected budget cuts.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to remove a scarlet letter from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program today. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year placed the Marine Corps' version of the Lockheed Martin-made jet on two years probation because of continued technical and design flaws.

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But in recent months, Lockheed officials have touted progress in correcting some lingering issues with the Marines' version, known as the F-35B.

"The Defense Department is clearly preparing to green-light the most challenging version of F-35," defense sector insider Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute told U.S. News & World Report late Thursday.

"Panetta may make the announcement as early as [Friday], when he visits Naval Air Station Patuxent River," said Thompson, who also is a consultant to defense firms.

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Lockheed recently delivered the first two non-testing versions of the jump jet version to the Marine Corps, which is using them to train pilots.

If Panetta removes the probation tag, it will mean another victory for the F-35 program, the biggest Pentagon program ever at over $300 billion, in 2012. Last year, the program suffered more significant cost overruns and new delays.

Ending the probation period also could signal the F-35 will come out mostly intact even as Pentagon officials are enacting $350 billion in cuts over a decade.

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