Embattled F-35 program quietly achieves another milestone

The latest example came Sunday evening, when the United Kingdom’s first short-takeoff-and-landing (STOVL) variant rolled out of a Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas. The jet will be used by the U.K. Ministry of Defence for training and testing, and will be delivered to the Brits next year.

U.K. Captain Harv Smyth, his nation’s F-35 program deputy, in a Lockheed statement issued Monday, called the development “a major milestone.”

Several weeks ago, a U.S. Marine Corps STOVL F-35 completed takeoff-and-landing tests at sea on board a big-deck amphibious ship, a major step in proving the fighter’s most complex variant works.

Lockheed and the Pentagon are eager to trumpet any positive development for the Defense Department’s largest-scale and most expensive weapons program ever.

A senior Pentagon official recently told The Hill that until the department gets the program out of its developmental phase and starts receiving F-35s in large quantities, the program will “always” be a target for those on Capitol Hill who want to slash military spending.

The Senate's version of 2012 defense spending legislation proposes cutting $695 million from the Pentagon's $9.7 billion F-35 funding request. It would freeze F-35 production levels at the 2011 rate through 2013 because the test program could not use all the new jets. That mark shows lawmakers and senior defense aides remain skeptical about the program's performance.

The Pentagon notified Congress earlier this year of a $771 million cost overrun on the first 28 models it will buy, drawing the ire of lawmakers.

Officials have been working with the military's program office and prime contractor Lockheed Martin to bring down the program's estimated $385 billion price tag. The Pentagon negotiated a tougher deal with Lockheed for the latest batch of jets that featured a smaller price tag than under previous contracts.

The cost of each F-35 jet, short of program changes, would be $103 million, according to senior Defense officials.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril McCain calls on Trump to rescind family separation policy: It's 'an affront to the decency of the American people' Senate passes 6B defense bill MORE (R-Ariz.) often notes, in frustration, that the Pentagon initially intended for each plane to cost $69 million.

“This first F-35 for the first international program partner is symbolic of the proud partnership we share with the United Kingdom,” Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Executive Vice President and General Manager of Program Integration Tom Burbage said in the company statement. “Working together in a spirit of collaboration, we are providing the men and women of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy with unmatched [Fifth] Generation capabilities, while delivering advanced technology-sector jobs to the U.K.”