Senators say Panetta's move to lift probation on F-35 was ‘premature’

Sens. Carl LevinCarl LevinA lesson on abuse of power by Obama and his Senate allies President Trump, listen to candidate Trump and keep Volcker Rule Republicans can learn from John McCain’s heroism MORE (D-Mich.) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's dangerous Guantánamo fixation will fuel fire for terrorists Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny Ad encourages GOP senator to vote 'no' on tax bill MORE (R-Ariz.), the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to release the F-35 fighter’s Marine variant from probation last month was “premature.”

The senators wrote a letter to Panetta on Monday outlining their concerns about the F-35B, which former Defense Secretary Robert Gates placed on two-year probation in 2011. When Gates put the F-35B on probation in 2011, he said the program had two years to fix testing problems or it risked cancellation. 

Panetta lifted the probation on the Lockheed Martin plane last month, a year ahead of schedule. 

McCain and Levin accused Panetta of not consulting with Congress in the move, nor defining specific criteria for ending the probation.

“Your decision may have forgone valuable opportunity to continue driving desired improvements through the still-nascent, enormously challenging program to develop the F-35B,” the senators wrote.

The Armed Services senators also sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office that asked for an assessment of how issues raised by the GAO on the F-35B had been dealt with.

The senators’ letter is the latest roadblock for the troubled F-35 fighter program, which, at an estimated $385 billion, is the Pentagon’s largest weapons system in history.

In Panetta’s preview of the 2013 budget announced last month, he said that F-35 production would be delayed.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said at a think-tank forum Monday that starting production on the F-35 fighter before conducting test flights was “acquisition malpractice,” a blunt assessment of the program.

The Marine’s F-35B, a short take-off, vertical-landing version, has had the most problems of the three F-35 variants. Some have suggested the F-35B should be scrapped as the Pentagon plans to cut $487 billion from its budget over the next 10 years.

When he lifted the probation, Panetta said that the Pentagon was standing behind the Marine’s F-35, but that the plane was “obviously not out of the woods yet.”

Levin and McCain’s letter to Panetta included 14 questions about the Marines’ F-35B variant. They also complained that they learned about the probation being lifted from the press, and not the Pentagon.