The embattled F-35 fighter program, amid a myriad technical problems, quietly keeps racking up wins as Pentagon officials try to protect America's lone active tactical jet program from big cuts.
The variant of the fighter being developed for the Marine Corps released a 1,000-pound bomb over the Atlantic Ocean Wednesday, Lockheed Martin and the Navy announced Thursday. Navy Capt. Erik Etz, a top F-35 program official, called the dropping of a GBU-3 Joint Direct Attack Munition "a significant entry into a new phase of testing for the F-35 program."
The bomb drop from the fighter jet marked the first time any of the three F-35 variants successfully completed what the military calls an "airborne weapon separation." The successful test comes after several others last year.
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But that is only part of the story for the most-expensive weapons program in history, with total costs expected to approach $400 billion.
Due to a number of technical problems, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates placed the Marine Corps variant, which can take off and land vertically, on probation last year. Gates's successor, Leon Panetta, removed the probation tag earlier this year.
The Pentagon's most recent spending plan, released in February, slashed the total number of F-35s it intends to purchase by over a dozen, the latest in a series of reductions. And the Navy is buying additional Boeing F/A-18 multi-role fighter jets as a hedge, in case the F-35 being designed to fly from aircraft carriers is delayed or canceled.
Last year, Pentagon officials drew the ire of Capitol Hill when they notified Congress of a $771 million cost overrun on the first 28 F-35s it will purchase.
A defense official told DOTMIL recently that until the program sheds recent problems and can be moved to a point where Lockheed Martin is able to produce the jets in large quantities, it always be a target for those in Washington who favor reducing annual military spending.
The stakes are high for the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin.
Eight other nations are partners in the pricey program, which, as Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute notes, has "helped to defray the cost of the F-35." Japan also recently picked the Lockheed-made jet over several others in a competition, and Israel intends to buy 75 of its own.
"Like its predecessors, the F-15, F-16 and F-18, the [F-35] will help create a global network of security relationships and military capabilities that can help deter aggression," Goure says. "This is a valuable contribution to future U.S. security that must be factored into any discussion of the cost of this program."
The F-35 program "has become an important and effective means of supporting traditional alliances and security relationships as well as providing the basis for the development of new ones," Goure says. "This is somewhat ironic in view of the criticism, much of it misplaced, that continues to be heaped on the program from some quarters in the U.S."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.