The Pentagon's most expensive weapons system program ever has taken a key step toward becoming operational, despite cost overruns and scheduling delays that have hampered its production and looming budget cuts that imperil its deployment.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is designed to replace the various fighter planes in the Navy's, Air Force's and Marine Corps' fleet of aircraft – a stealth jet capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks.
The Marine Corps last week introduced its first operational variant of the F-35 and Fighter Attack Squadron 121, which will fly it – a Marine air station at Yuma, Ariz. The stealth fighter will replace the Marines' Cold War-era F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8 Harrier, and will be able to take off from short runways and land vertically like a helicopter.
The Yuma squadron will have four F-35B Lightning II jets by the end of December, and 16 by the end of fiscal 2014, said Capt. Richard Ulsh, a Marine Corps spokesman.
Although the F-35Bs aren't yet ready to deploy, the Yuma squadron is expected to be the first Marine F-35 squadron to deploy to its air station in Iwakuni, Japan, and possibly the first F-35 squadron off all the services to deploy, sometime in 2015.
The Navy and the Air Force are developing their own variants of the $140 million aircraft, manufactured by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.
The Pentagon has ordered more than 2,400 of the next-generation fighter at a total current cost of more than $330 billion, according to defense budget analyst Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"It's far over budget and far behind schedule. It has already exceeded its original budget by more than 50 percent," Mr. Harrison said of the F-35 program.
The Joint Strike Fighter program has been in development for more than a decade, and has been beset by delays and cost overruns, and it would likely take a budget hit if automatic spending cuts slated to begin Jan. 2 are not averted.
The Pentagon would be expected to reduce its budget by more than $50 billion next year under the automatic spending cuts, which would slow procurement, research and development, and training and testing of the aircraft, Mr. Harrison said.
"What will happen, as that total cost goes up, what will inevitably happen is that [defense officials] will say, 'All right, well we can't afford more, because our budget overall is being cut, so we'll just buy fewer aircraft,'" he said. "And that has been the trend in recent years. We started out with the F-22 program – the other stealthy fighter – we started out planning to buy over 700 of them, and we stopped the program at 187.
"Right now, we're planning to buy just over 2,400 Joint Strike Fighters, but as these costs continue to escalate, odds are, we will buy far less than 2,400," Mr. Harrison said.
Meanwhile, with its first operational squadron, the Marine Corps hopes that hands-on operational experience with the aircraft will help refine the maintenance process and eventually bring down upkeep costs.
"This squadron is important because it's not a testing squadron, it's an operational squadron that will continue to train pilots and maintenance crews on the capabilities of the aircraft," said spokesman Capt. Ulsh.
The F-35B was placed on a two-year probation in 2010 by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. The probation was lifted in January by new Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, a decision that was criticized by the Senate Armed Services Committee's leaders – Sens. Carl M. Levin, Michigan Democrat and committee chairman, and John McCain of Arizona, the panel's ranking Republican.
The senators questioned whether lifting the probation was premature, given the F-35's problems during testing such as the design of the plane's tailhook for aircraft carrier landings and its helmet-imaging system.
Col. Kevin Killea, head of aviation requirements for the Marine Corps Headquarters, said that such problems have either been corrected, or have been addressed with a temporary fix until a permanent solution can be implemented.
Mr. McCain last week said he was encouraged the program is moving in the right direction.
"After several major restructuring efforts over the last two years the Government Accountability Office recently found for the first time in the program's history that the program is finally set up to produce more achievable and predictable outcomes," he said at the Marine Corps' unveiling of the F-35B in Yuma.
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