Gates Puts Lockheed Marine Corps F-35 on ‘Probation’

Lockheed Martin F-35B
Lockheed Martin's F-35B will be used by the U.S. Marine Corps. Source: Lockheed Martin

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decided to put the Marine Corps’s F-35 jet on a two-year “probation” to give Lockheed Martin Corp. more time to demonstrate the fighter’s reliability, according to two defense officials and a lawmaker.

Gates will announce the decision today at a Pentagon news conference as part of his plan to save $102 billion in military spending through 2016, the officials said. Gates is proposing to make selective cuts and improve efficiency to free up money for priority weapons purchases and personnel.

Gates’s probation proposal acknowledges “the reality of a lot of the difficulties that the Marine version’s had,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said in interview. “Obviously, I want to look at the implications of it.”

McCain commented after attending a briefing by Gates for top lawmakers today.

Gates first outlined his plans for the F-35 to General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, at a Dec. 3 meeting on the fiscal 2012 budget, one official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans haven’t been made public by the defense secretary.

The F-35 decision means the Marines will join the Air Force and Navy in delaying acquisition of the Pentagon’s biggest weapons project. The F-35 program is about four years behind schedule, and the cost estimate per aircraft has almost doubled from the original $50 million.

Complex Version

The Marines’ F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for short-takeoff and vertical-landing, is the most complex version of the model and has had flight-test delays, some caused by parts shortages or lack of reliability.

The Pentagon is developing three versions of the aircraft in the $382 billion F-35 program. Air Force and Navy versions are designed for conventional takeoffs and landings on fixed runways and aircraft carriers.

The U.K. in October said it decided in a budget-cutting move against buying the more expensive short-takeoff version of the jet.

The co-chairmen of President Barack Obama’s debt commission in November proposed ending the Marine Corps version of the F-35, a move they said would save $17.6 billion from 2012 to 2015. That recommendation will be repeated in the now-disbanded commission’s final report to be released this month, according to a spokesman.

Extended Timetable

Gates previously announced a 13-month extension in the timetable for the $30 billion development phase of the F-35, and his latest move would postpone any possible approval of the project for two more years.

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.

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.”

Amos last month told reporters he will scrap a December 2012 target to have its F-35 ready for combat and isn’t setting a new date yet.

“I’m really not wringing my hands over that,” Amos said. “It will be when it will be.”

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