Defense Media Network

SECDEF Gates Places the F-35B on “Probation”

The F-35B Lightning II short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) was placed on a two-year “probation” by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on January 6.

The decision was part of what Gates called the Efficiencies Initiative aimed at redirecting $102 billion in military spending through 2016. The plan includes purchasing 41 more F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters for the Navy and canceling the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, but a restructuring of the JSF program is the centerpiece of Gates’ effort. Gates expressed “serious concern” about technical issues in the F-35B program and said that planemaker Lockheed Martin may need to redesign the fighter’s airframe structure and propulsion system.

The Pentagon has had fewer difficulties with the Air Force’s F-35A conventional takeoff and landing version of the JSF and with the Navy’s F-35C carrier-based model but Gates also announced an overall slowdown: The U.S. military will now purchase 325 JSFs between 2012 and 2016, or 124 fewer than anticipated a few months ago. The change will slow production increases at the Fort Worth, Texas, factory.

The F-35B, which uses a lift-fan engine for vertical landings, is the intended successor of the AV-8B Harrier II STOVL attack plane and is the only fixed-wing aircraft that might replace the AV-8B on the decks of Navy assault ships. As part of a massive cost-saving effort, Great Britain recently decided to shift from the F-35B to the carrier-borne F-35C model, leaving only the U. S. Marine Corps and the Italian Navy, which operates the aircraft carrier Cavour, as committed F-35B users.

The F-35B was to have been the first JSF model put into service. Until recently, the Marine Corps took an aggressive public posture with plans to make its F-35B operational as much as two years before Air Force or Navy JSFs. Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos said the F-35B is “essential” to the Marines’ future, but at the end of 2010 shelved plans for the F-35B to be ready for combat by the end of 2012, pointing to flight-test delays caused by parts shortages and other problems.

The Pentagon was planning to buy 14 F-35Bs in fiscal year 2012, which begins October 1, and 25 the following year. Now, it will acquire just six F-35Bs next year and six more in fiscal 2013. Over the next five years, the Marines will receive 50 F-35s, or fully 60 less than once planned.

Gates said work on the Air Force and Navy versions of the JSF was proceeding satisfactorily.

Referring to the F-35B version, Gates told reporters: “If we cannot fix this variant during this time frame and get it back on track in terms of performance, cost and schedule, then I believe it should be canceled,” Lockheed Martin CEO Robert Stevens said the company is determined to meet its commitments. “We recognize our role and responsibility to deliver extraordinary fighters in three variants,” Stevens said. “We’re committed to doing that, and we’re confident that we’ll succeed, including delivering the STOVL variant.”


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...