The U.S. military is committed to developing the Marine Corps version of the next-generation strike fighter jet, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday, but he warned that the program is "not out of the woods yet."
Standing in front of one of the fighter aircraft at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, where the program is run, Panetta said the Pentagon needs "to make sure we're on the cutting edge" of military technology.
"This fifth-generation fighter behind me is absolutely vital to maintaining our air superiority," Panetta told about 100 people inside an aircraft hangar at the air station. Many in his audience work on the test program.
Before his address, Panetta visited an F-35 flight test simulator. He "flew" it briefly and also got briefings on progress made to resolve technical problems with the Marine Corps and Navy versions of the F-35.
The F-35 Lightening II is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program, and it has been troubled by schedule delays and cost overruns. Ten years in, the total F-35 program cost has jumped from $233 billion to an estimated $385 billion. And, recent estimates say, the entire program could exceed $1 trillion over 50 years.
Last year, former defense chief Robert Gates announced he was putting the program on probation and said he would try to cancel it if problems were not resolved within two years.
In practical terms, that threat lost its power when Gates left office at the end of June. But Panetta made it official Friday.
The Marine version, he said, "has made, I believe and all of us believe, sufficient progress so that as of today, I am lifting the (fighter's) probation."
The military is developing three versions of the F-35 for the Navy, Air Force and Marines.
The new jet will replace the Air Force's F-16 Falcon and the A-10 Warthog aircraft. A short-takeoff and vertical landing version will replace the Marine Corps F/A-18C/D and AV-8B Harrier aircraft. And the Navy is buying a model designed for taking off and landing on aircraft carriers.
Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, welcomed Panetta's announcement and said he will monitor the program closely. In a statement Friday, he said introduction of the fighter into the Marine's training squadrons and combat units will be done responsibly based on the merits of the test program and its progress during the evaluations.
Amos added that the F-35 is the only fighter model capable of operating off of the large-deck amphibious warships, or in austere and remote expeditionary operations.