* No Plan B for Marines if short-takeoff plane canceled
* Marine Corps commandant says test performance improving
* 'Is the juice worth the squeeze?'
By David Alexander
NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md., July 29 (Reuters) -
The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps pushed back on Friday
against criticism of the short-takeoff version of the F-35
Joint Strike Fighter, saying test performance was improving and
the aircraft was critical to the Marines' military future.
Speaking to reporters after a Marine pilot conducted a
short takeoff and vertical landing of the aircraft, General
James Amos said there was no Marine fall-back plan for the F-35
if Congress decided to terminate production as part of efforts
to reduce the $1.4 trillion U.S. deficit.
"There is no 'Plan B,'" he said. "To do the things that our
nation requires of this Marine Corps, we need this airplane.
... So I don't speculate: 'Will it make it through probation?'
I'm absolutely confident it will."
Lawmakers in Congress have been critical of the rising
price-tag and production delays of the Lockheed Martin (LMT.N)
F-35 program, by far the costliest Pentagon arms purchase at a
projected $385 billion.
Senator John McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam war
hero who is the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services
Committee, has been sharply critical of cost overruns in the
program, projected to replace 2,457 aircraft through 2035.
With President Barack Obama and Congress under pressure to
bring the U.S. deficit and $14.3 trillion national debt under
control, the defense budget has come under closer scrutiny.
Obama has asked the Pentagon to find $400 billion in cuts
over the next 12 years, but lawmakers and analysts have warned
that more may be needed from defense, with some calling for
$800 billion to $1 trillion.
A recent report by the Center for American Progress in
Washington suggested retaining the Air Force version of the
F-35 while canceling the Navy and Marine Corps variants, saying
those services could buy F/A-18 Super Hornets instead and save
$16.4 billion through 2015.
But Amos said once the Marines' Harrier jets reach the end
of their life span around 2023, the corps will have no
fixed-wing airplanes that it can fly from its 11 amphibious
assault ships to provide support for the Marine infantry
battalions they carry.
When equipped with fixed-wing aircraft, the amphibious
assault ships can perform a more effective role in supporting
overall Navy aircraft carrier missions. The USS Kearsarge, for
example, flew combat sorties over Libya and was involved in the
rescue of the pilot whose F-15 crashed there, he said.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the Marine Corps
version of the F-35 on probation last year because of cost
overruns and schedule delays, saying it would be canceled in
two years unless Lockheed could fix the plane's test problems.
"A lot has happened since then," Amos said. "I mean the
metrics for determining how the airplane is flying and testing
have improved dramatically. Not in every area. But in most
areas the airplane is ahead of schedule on tests."
Lieutenant Colonel Fred Schenk, the test pilot who flew the
plane on Friday, said the F-35 "hands-down is much more stable"
than the Harrier jets he has flown.
One advance is that the software integrates the different
systems on the plane, giving the pilot an overall picture that
frees him from managing individual systems, Schenk said. The
plane also has a radar-evading body design, which is important
due to increasingly sophisticated air defenses.
"It's a stealthy aircraft," he said. "So we truly will have
a fifth-generation airplane now which will enable us to go into
those high-threat scenarios, Day-One-of-the-war kind of
scenarios, and take down those targets."
Lockheed Chief Executive Robert Stevens acknowledged the
pressure to reduce the cost of the aircraft, saying "I believe
we'll be able to do that if we get the technical challenges
addressed and if we buy the airplanes in a smart, strategic
Amos acknowledged the plane's high price-tag but said, "The
question is this: Is the juice worth the squeeze?"
"This airplane is going to bring a lot more to the
battlefield," he said, from information dominance and
electronic warfare to stealth and intelligence capabilities.
"I would say that the answer to the question is:
(Editing by Chris Wilson)