US Marines see progress in F-35 fighter jet testing despite hurdles

By Andrea Shalal-Esa ,Reuters

ABOARD USS WASP — Two F-35 fighter jets have completed dozens of test flights from the deck of this amphibious assault ship over the past three weeks, but several flights were scrapped on Wednesday for maintenance issues, just as more than a dozen journalists arrived for a demonstration. U.S. Marine Corps officials said the jets had made more than 90 successful vertical landings on the USS Wasp this month, including many at night — showing the growing maturity of Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35B fighter. The officials said groundings were rare during the recent 19-day test period.

But Wednesday’s failed demonstration was a reminder of the problems faced by the F-35 program, which has seen repeated cost increases and schedule delays since it began in 2001. Lockheed is developing three variants of the F-35 to replace over a dozen warplane types now in use around the world. The Marines plan to start using the newest U.S. fighter in combat just two years from now — in mid-2015 — but the US$392 billion program, the costliest weapons program in U.S. history, still faces technical and budget challenges.

Brigadier General Matthew Glavy said the radar-evading nature of the F-35 B-model, which can make short takeoffs and land like a helicopter, would make it a key asset in future missions against countries with surface-to-air missiles, like Syria. “It would kick in the door,” Glavy said, highlighting the benefits of the stealthy F-35B during a visit to the Wasp — one of the large Navy warships that will carry the new warplanes when they become operational.

He said the plane’s stealth would allow it to penetrate enemy territory undetected, delivering the first punch in future wars. Glavy said Wednesday’s temporary halt in flights was disappointing, but the overall tests had demonstrated progress for other guests, including Pentagon chief arms buyer Frank Kendall and Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley.