The program manager for the vertical takeoff version of the F-35 -- also known as the commandant of the Marine Corps -- told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that he is "optimistic" about the plane's prospects.
"What I am seeing now is very encouraging," Gen. James Amos said. And he was joined in expressions of optimism by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The Navy leader said the two-year probation announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates would allow time to "make sure it can be fixed within weight limits and cost limits. He noted that the number of test flights this year is "140 percent of where we expected to be" and the program is "almost 200 percent ahead of where we expected to be" on test points. Finally, the plane has flown more vertical takeoffs and landings in the first two months than in all of last year, he told the SASC.
In his prepared remarks, Amos said he is "confident that we will field this aircraft in accordance with responsible timelines. This matter has my unwavering attention, and I am personally overseeing this program."
He told the committee he plans to present Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the next few months with metrics to measure the program's progress and offer it the chance to get taken off the probation list.
What will the Marines and be Navy keep their eyes fixed on for the next two years? Weight and cost will drive whether the program survives or not, Mabus made clear.
The commandant confirmed that the Marines were looking at buying some F-35Cs, the carrier variant, to keep their hands in on carrier operations. Amos said it wasn't clear yet whether F-35Bs will operate from carriers, which is almost certain to be the result of the combination of great thrust and heat from the plane's engines, something that has worried testers for some time. The Marines have been making modifications to the plane's power plant that are supposed to ameliorate the problem, but Amos' comments today seem to indicate they are not confident in whether they will work. Amos did not offer any numbers.