* 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 way.”
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: ‘Emphatically, yes.’” (Editing by Chris Wilson)