Panetta says F-35 ‘absolutely vital’ as he lifts probation on Marine Corps jet

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced he was lifting probation of the Marine Corps F-35 fighter variant on Friday, giving the program a boost before the Pentagon’s budget cuts are announced next month.

Speaking behind an F-35 plane at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, where testing is conducted, Panetta said he was lifting the probation in part because of the progress that had been made there.

“This fifth-generation fighter behind me is absolutely vital to maintaining our air superiority,” Panetta said. “As secretary of Defense, my department is committed to the development of the F-35. It’s absolutely critical, that we get it right, and that’s why you’re here.”

The F-35B, the Marines’ short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant, has been the most troubled version of the F-35, the Pentagon’s largest weapons program in history. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates placed the program on a two-year probation in January 2011, threatening to cancel the Marine fighter altogether if problems were not addressed.

Budget watchers had also pegged the F-35B as a potential target for the budget axe, as the Pentagon prepares to cut $487 billion from its budgets over the next decade. Some had suggested the military would have been fine with only two variants instead of three.

Panetta reaffirmed his commitment to the Marine's version Friday, though that doesn't mean the program won't face some reduction when the Pentagon's budget is released next month. Panetta said Friday there’s still a long way to go for the F-35 program, as it’s “obviously not out of the woods yet.”

“We now believe that because of your work, that the [F-35B] variant is demonstrating the kind of performance and maturity that is in line with the other two variants of the JSF,” Panetta said.