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Lockheed’s F-35B Said to Be Getting Panetta’s Backing

Lockheed Martin Corp. will win backing from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the F-35B, the most complex model of the fighter jet, a U.S. official said.

Panetta will lift a yearlong “probation” on the Marine Corps version of the jet, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the announcement to be made today at the F-35B test facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

The B model is being watched as a bellwether for the $382 billion F-35 program, the Pentagon’s most costly. The Marine Corps plans to buy about 340 of the aircraft that can take off like a conventional fighter and land like a helicopter. Italy also is buying as many as 60 of the jets.

“The news is important and suggests a solid outlook for the F-35B in the upcoming budget,” Byron Callan, a defense-market analyst for Capital Alpha Partners LLC in Washington, said in an e-mail. “It’s a positive for Lockheed Martin stock as well as other partners.”

Congress will still be “keenly interested in the details of what hurdles have been cleared to take the program off probation,” he said.

Lockheed Martin fell 1 percent to $82.80 at 10:06 a.m. in New York trading.

Gates Decision

Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided in January 2011 to put the Marine Corps jet on what was then envisioned to be a two-year “probation” to give Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin more time to demonstrate the fighter’s reliability.

The fighter jet should be taken off probation because of the results in testing last year, Marine Corps General James Amos said in a letter to Panetta dated Jan. 10 and obtained yesterday.

“Since the F-35B program is moving forward without any unique issues that require additional scrutiny, I am recommending rescission of the probation,” Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said.

Amos, who tracks the aircraft’s testing and assembly progress from a computer terminal at his desk, said he was “confident the F-35B’s development and testing is on track,” citing what he said was “excellent progress” during tests designed to assess its ground and sea-based operations.

‘Significant Work’ Remains

The Pentagon’s test office said in its annual report released last week that the Marine Corps version successfully conducted initial trials in October from a ship at sea and through Nov. 30 had exceeded by 40 the planned number of test flights designed to demonstrate flight characteristics.

“However, significant work and flight tests remain to verify and incorporate modifications to aircraft required to correct known deficiencies and prepare the system for operational use,” Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, said in the report.

“A significant amount of flight test and development remains to be accomplished” with troubled components, including the propulsion system’s driveshaft, clutch and an actuator, he said.

Amos said the Pentagon program office “‘has thoroughly assessed and rapidly developed engineering solutions’’ for questions about the propulsion system’s auxiliary air inlet doors, actuators and bulkhead fatigue cracks as well as the clutch and drive shaft concerns.

Gates, Panetta’s predecessor, said last year the F-35B was ‘‘experiencing significant testing problems” that “could lead to a redesign of the aircraft’s structure and propulsion -- changes that could add yet more weight and more cost to an aircraft that has little capacity to absorb.”

“If we cannot fix this variant during this time and get back on track in terms of performance, cost and schedule, then I believe it should be canceled,” Gates said.

Amos wrote that “an aggressive weight growth process” has been started “to ensure vertical lift performance” continues to meet combat requirements.

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