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.

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.