* General says he supports "probation" for STOVL variant
* Says service will keep close eye on program
* New report says only 130 of 173 planned flights done
(Adds data on fighter plane from Pentagon report)
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Jan 13 The Marine Corps' top leader
said he was confident Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) would solve
technical problems with the service's version of the F-35 Joint
Strike Fighter and save it from cancellation.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week put the short
takeoff, vertical landing (STOVL) model of the F-35 on
"probation" for two years to fix significant problems, saying
the program should be canceled if solutions were not found
within that period.
"I completely support that," Marine Corps General James
Amos told the annual conference of the Surface Navy
Association, adding that he also supported Gates' decision to
terminate the $13 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle being
developed for the Marines by General Dynamics Corp. (GD.N)
Amos said he intended to keep a close eye on the F-35B, the
STOVL variant, because of its importance to the Marine Corps.
"I'm absolutely confident that we can bring that airplane
in," he said.
The Marines Corps will likely order service life extensions
for some of its F/A-18 fighters to cover any gap resulting from
the delay in the F-35 program, he said.
Amos said Lockheed was making strides in solving
engineering problems with the F-35B, including an issue with
the doors that have to open to allow the vertical lift fan to
draw in air, as well as weight issues with the airplane's
"I think this is engineering at this point. I'm optimistic.
We can do this," Amos said, adding that it would be critical to
control the weight of the aircraft going forward.
A new report by the Pentagon's top tester said unexpected
component deficiencies and the immaturity of the STOVL design
had limited testing of the Marine Corps variant last year,
allowing the program to complete only 130 flights of the 173
that were planned in fiscal-year 2010, which ended Sept. 30.
There were also delays in the mission systems software that
affected flight test progress, the report said, noting that a
total of 282 flight tests were done of all three variants
combined, 26 more than the 256 flight tests that were planned.
Lockheed said each of the variants had made significant
progress in flight testing over the last year.
"The type of component-level issues experienced by the
STOVL variant are not uncommon in early test aircraft," said
spokesman John Kent. "We are implementing a series of solutions
that has enabled us to accelerate the flight rate of our STOVL
jets, particularly over the last few months."
Amos said he recommended that Gates cancel the EFV
amphibious landing craft because of its "onerous" procurement
cost as well as the high cost of operating and supporting it.
He said the Marine Corps would have spent about 80 percent
of its ground tactical vehicle budget to buy 535 EFV vehicles,
while there were 20,000 to 25,000 other Marine vehicles that
needed to be replaced or upgraded in coming years.
Some U.S. lawmakers have already signaled their opposition
to the decision to cancel the General Dynamics program, arguing
that the Marines need a vehicle to be able to get ashore
quickly from the water.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by John Wallace and