PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION, Md. – 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 jets are tested, Panetta said the Pentagon needs "to make sure we're on the cutting edge" of military technology like that incorporated in the F-35. He said he based his support for the plane on its developers' ability to resolve a series of technical problems that some had feared might doom the project.
"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 Lightning II.
The F-35 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.
Panetta is expected to affirm as early as next week, in previewing the administration's 2013 defense budget, that the F-35 program remains a top priority. Some analysts have speculated that Panetta may decide to slow down the planned rate of production of the plane to save billions of dollars in the short run, without reducing the total number of planes eventually to be purchased.
The developer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., is building three versions of the F-35 — one each for the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. They are intended to replace Cold War-era aircraft such as the Air Force F-16 fighter, the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet and the Marines' EA-6B Prowler and AV-8B Harrier. International partners, including Britain, also are in line to buy F-35s.
Last January, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the Marines' version of the aircraft — which is capable of taking off from shorter runways and landing vertically — on two-year "probation" because it was experiencing "significant testing problems." If those problems could not be fixed within two years, Gates said, he would advocate canceling the program. It was a threat that troubled the Marine Corps.
That threat lost its power when Gates left office last summer, but the project's future remained in some doubt.
Panetta's declaration of an end to the "probation" has no immediate practical effect on the Marines' F-35 program. But it amounts to a significant political boost for the overall project, which Gates himself said, when he announced the probation, holds a "central place in the future of U.S. military aviation."
The Marine version of the F-35, Panetta said, has made "sufficient progress" over the past 12 months to merit lifting its probation. He cited no specifics, but among the plane's key problems was the inadequate fitting of a pair of doors atop the plane that open to allow extra air to reach the engines. Solutions to that and other problems have been found but not fully validated in all cases.
Rolls-Royce, which provides the technology that enables the Marine variant to land vertically, hailed Panetta's announcement.
"This key step signifies a bright and solid future for the program," said Dan Korte, president of Rolls-Royce's defense business.
Panetta made a point of tempering his praise for the Marine variant with a cautionary note.
"It's not to say we don't have a long way to go. We do," he said, adding the plane is "not out of the woods yet."
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. The first F-35 arrived at a Marine training unit at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., earlier this month.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP