Panetta to end probation of Marines’ F-35

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to take the Marine Corps version of the F-35 fighter, the F-35B, off “probation” during a visit to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

The decision, confirmed by a U.S. official to The Hill, injects new life into the troubled Lockheed Martin fighter plane.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates placed the F-35B, the Marines’ short-take-off, vertical-landing version of the F-35, on probation last January. Gates had given Lockheed and the Marines two years to correct the program, which has been plagued by technical problems, or he said it should be terminated.

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The F-35B is the most complicated of the three variants of the fighter program and has had the most problems, making it a ripe target for budget cuts. The F-35 program, at $327 billion, is the largest weapons system in Pentagon history.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos, who has gotten personally involved in the effort to right the F-35 program, sent a letter to Panetta last week recommending the F-35B be taken off probation, Bloomberg News reported.

“Since the F-35B program is moving forward without any unique issues that require additional scrutiny, I am recommending rescission of the probation,” Amos wrote.

Panetta is giving a town hall Friday at Patuxent River, where testing has been conducted on the F-35.