Marines, Lockheed Handed Big Victory as Panetta Ends F-35 Probation

Defense Secretary hands a big win to Lockheed, Marines.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta provided a major boost to Lockheed Martin and the F-35 fighter program Friday when he struck down the probation sentence that the Marine Corps' jump jet version had been under since last year. Panetta's predecessor, Robert Gates, slapped the probation sentence on the Marines' model due to lingering technical issues and design flaws.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta provided a major boost to Lockheed Martin and the F-35 fighter program Friday when he struck down the probation sentence that the Marine Corps' jump jet version had been under since last year. Panetta's predecessor, Robert Gates, slapped the probation sentence on the Marines' model due to lingering technical issues and design flaws.

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Speaking at the Naval Air Station in Pautuxent River, Maryland, Panetta said F-35 program testers have "made real progress" in fixing the problems that have held back the Marines' version, known as the F-35B. "We now believe [the B model] is demonstrating the same kind of stability and maturity that is in line with the other two variants," Panetta said. "I am lifting the ... probation."

The Pentagon is planning to spend over $300 billion to develop, test and buy over 2,400 F-35s. The biggest U.S. weapons program ever, it also includes models designed for the Air Force and Navy. Over a dozen U.S. allies have signalled an intention to buy F-35s.

The removal of the probation tag comes days before the Defense Department is slated to release its 2013 budget plan. The move could be a sign that the F-35 program and its budget plan will remain largely intact, even as Pentagon officials are enacting $350 billion in cuts over a decade.

Though he applauded the progress made over the last year, the defense secretary said bluntly: "We've got a long way to go with the [F-35] testing," adding the Marines' model is "not out of the woods yet." But Panetta also gave a caveated endorsement to the often-delayed and over budget initiative, saying he is "confident" the Marine Corps and Navy models "are going to be ready for operations" later this decade, but only if those working on the fighter program continue the kind of "dedicated work" that led to the end of its probation.

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Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, who injected himself into managing the program when he took office last year, said in a statement he is "bullish" about the B variant's future.

"As the principal service chief responsible for the fielding and operational employment of the [F-35B], I will continue to closely monitor the jet's progress on a daily basis, as I have over the past 13 months," Amos said.

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.

Panetta's announcement is the latest in a series of quiet victories for the F-35 program to start in 2012 after a year that saw new and unplanned cost growth, along with new delays.

"Getting the F-35B fighter out of probation was crucial to Marine Corps war plans. Those plans require a tactical aircraft with the vertical agility of a helicopter and the survivability of a fighter," said defense sector insider Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "F-35B is the only plane in the world that can do what the Marines want."

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It's also a big win for Lockheed Martin. "Lockheed Martin's strategy for weathering the defense downturn depends on keeping all three versions of the F-35 fighter on track," said Thompson, also a consultant to major defense firms, adding the jet is the "key" to the company's "future dominance of the global military aircraft market."

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