Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced on Jan. 20 that he is ending the “probation” of the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the F-35B Lightning II. To free the F-35B from conditions imposed by his predecessor, Panetta traveled to the test center at Patuxent River, Md., and appeared with an F-35B (aircraft BF-4, recently used in sea trials aboard the assault ship USS Wasp [LHD 1]) and with Marine Corps commandant Gen. James F. Amos. Some observers thought it was an unusually high-profile appearance to announce a relatively routine decision and some noticed that it happened on a Friday afternoon – the timing typically chosen by Washington leaders when something controversial is to be announced.
“We need to make sure we are on the cutting edge,” Panetta said. He added that the JSF is “absolutely vital to maintaining our air superiority,” but insisted that it’s important “to get this right.”
Panetta’s announcement means the JSF program, which has been plagued by cost increases and technical delays, will move ahead. The decision is a boost for advocates of the jet fighter, who say that its stealth qualities and versatility are needed to wage modern war. But skeptics were quick to point out that the decision by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to give the F-35B two years to improve, and Panetta’s announcement that it had done so was mostly an inside-the-Washington-Beltway ploy. In DOD Buzz, Philip Ewing wrote that Gates “wrote a big check he knew he’d never have to cash, saying that the jet had two years to get its act together or he’d support its cancellation.
“Only Gates knew he wouldn’t be SecDef when that bill came due and that Lockheed, [the] Marine Corps and program officials were already knuckling down to tackle the B’s problems,” wrote Ewing.
Panetta praised the Patuxent community for demonstrating “real progress” in testing the STOVL aircraft during 2011.
The decision was hailed by partner nations in the JSF program. Julian Fantino, Canada’s Associate Minister of National Defense, called the move “welcome news for Canada and our allies’ participation in the multinational Joint Strike Fighter development program.”
The Marine Corps and Italy are presently the only users of the STOVL version of the JSF.