* 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 (Reuters) - 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 bulkhead.
“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 Matthew Lewis)