Defense Secretary Robert Gates will recommend giving the Marine Corps as much as two additional years to develop its version of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter to correct technical and manufacturing glitches that have delayed testing, according to two defense officials.
Gates told General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, of the decision in a Dec. 3 meeting on the fiscal 2012 budget, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified because the session wasn’t public.
The Marines’ short-takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft, the most complex version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has had flight-test schedule delays, some caused by parts shortages or reliability.
The U.K. in October said it decided in a budget-cutting move against buying the more expensive short-takeoff variant of the jet. The co-chairmen of President Barack Obama’s debt commission last month proposed terminating the Marine Corps version of the F-35, a move they said would save $17.6 billion between fiscal years 2012 and 2015.
The extra two years would be in addition to an earlier 13- month extension, to November 2015, that Gates ordered in the F- 35’s overall $30 billion development phase.
The Pentagon is developing three versions of the aircraft in the $382 billion F-35 program. Air Force and Navy variants are designed for conventional takeoffs and landings on fixed runways and aircraft carriers.
The Marine Corps has said its aircraft is needed to replace the 25-year-old AV-B Harrier for use from smaller amphibious warfare vessels and landings on improvised airstrips.
Critical to War Fighters
“The policy makers supported the Marine Corps position because the plane is critical to war fighters and the problems are typical of what happens in weapons development,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a research group based in Arlington, Virginia.
“The Marine Corps and Lockheed Martin feel two years should be enough,” Thompson said. The Marines have said the service expected to declare the aircraft ready for combat in 2012, or at least three years earlier than the Air Force and Navy versions, which are having fewer testing problems.
Marine Corps spokesman Colonel Bryan Salas said he didn’t have information on the meeting between Gates and Amos. A decision will be released in February with the proposed budget for fiscal 2012, which starts next Oct. 1.
As of today, the Marine Corps model has accomplished 197 of 232 test flights planned, said John Kent, a spokesman for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin.
Correcting malfunctions often takes “longer than you think given the less-significant nature of the parts involved,” Lockheed Chairman Robert Stevens said on a July 27 conference call with analysts. “In some cases, we’ve had to remove the engine to get access to the component.”
The overall F-35 program is about four years behind its initial schedule. The estimate for the basic cost of an individual aircraft has increased about 84 percent, to $92 million in 2002 dollars from $50 million.
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