F-35 fighter drops first bomb, marking new test phase
* Bomb over Atlantic range tests release gear, not targeting
* F-35 is Pentagon's costliest weapons program
* Eight other countries are cost-sharing in the program
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, Aug 9 (Reuters) - A Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft has dropped its first bomb in a new test stage of the Pentagon's costliest weapons purchase, officials said Thursday.
An inert 1,000-pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition was released Wednesday by the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B version over a watery Atlantic range, the Naval Air Systems Command said in a statement.
The event, one of thousands of capabilities being tested this year, starts the "validation" of the ability to deploy precision weapons against foes on the ground and in the air, the command said.
Current Pentagon plans call for buying some 2,443 F-35s in three radar-evading models - for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy - through the mid-2030s at a cost projected to top $396 billion.
Hundreds of additional F-35s are expected to be purchased by U.S. friends and allies, including eight co-development partners - Britain, Italy, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.
In addition, Israel and Japan already have signed purchase agreements for the jet. F-35 sales competitors include Boeing Co 's F-18E/F, Saab's Gripen, France's Dassault Rafale, Russia's MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35, and the Eurofighter Typhoon made by a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies.
The F-35, also called the Lightning II, is designed to replace a range of fighter, strike and ground-attack aircraft, including Lockheed's F-16, the world's most widely used multirole fighter.
The test on Wednesday checked for a smooth release of the bomb from its carriage systems and path away from the aircraft, not for targeting.
"The targeting aspect will come further down the road," said Victor Chen, spokesman for the F-35 integrated test facility at Patuxent River, Maryland. He declined to project when.
The bomb release capped a series of ground fit checks, ground pit drops and aerial maneuvers to make sure everything was set for expanding the "test envelope" in the air, the Navy said.
The Pentagon this year postponed production of 179 F-35s until after 2017, stretching out development and testing to curb costly retrofits.
The latest restructuring, the third such major revamp, added 33 months and $7.9 billion to the development plan.
"While this weapons separation test is just one event in a series of hundreds of flights and thousands of test points that we are executing this year, it does represent a significant entry into a new phase of testing for the F-35 program," Captain Erik Etz, director of test for the naval versions, said in the statement.
Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier by sales, is developing the F-35 with Northrop Grumman Corp and Britain's BAE Systems PLC. United Technologies Corp 's Pratt & Whitney unit supplies the engine.
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