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SecDef plans first visit to F-35

Shame on us for thinking the unthinkable about the F-35.

How healthy is the world's biggest defense program? Secretary Panetta himself plans to head down Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., for his first in-person encounter with the jet and the people who make it possible, DoD announced Wednesday. We just don't know exactly when that's going to happen.

The Pentagon first announced that Panetta was planning on heading to Pax River on Friday, but then it followed up with another announcement that something had come up and he had to postpone his trip until "early next year." Still, it's the thought that counts, right?

Here's what Panetta would have done on Friday, per the first announcement:

At the F-35 test facility, the secretary will deliver brief remarks to one hundred fifty military and civilian personnel from the F-35 Integrated Test Force, and field questions from the workforce.  He will be accompanied by U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer [MD-5], who will introduce Secretary Panetta.

Time permitting, media will also receive a brief on F-35 test and evaluation as well as a tour of the F-35 manned flight simulator.  Media interested in covering the Secretary’s F-35 town hall only will be accommodated.

This program would probably welcome a public affairs shot in the arm. It's in a lot of budget-cutters' crosshairs; its top officials are publicly regretting its "concurrent" development and production; and its Hill nemeses, notably Arizona Sen. John McCain, are keeping the vitriol flowing. This week he called the F-35 a "scandal" and "a national tragedy."

So what's the answer? You guessed it: Some nice video of Panetta watching a shiny jet zooming past -- wow! -- still photos of him in a hard hat talking to salt-of-the-earth engineers; maybe some hilarious shots of him trying on the pilots' famous high-tech helmet. We know that for his part, Panetta supports the F-35. And the secretary wouldn't subject himself to a media day like this unless he was confident the program was going to survive the big crunch -- right?

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