The Marines' F-35B Lightning II stood in the corner, wore the dunce cap, went to bed without dessert and now, a year later, is ready to get off "probation," according to reports Thursday.
Secretary Panetta appears set to use his delayed visit to Naval Air Station Patuxent River on Friday to announce that the B is back, baby, and that the F-35 overall is doin' great, thanks for asking. The program desperately wants positive headlines, especially after the reports that Lockheed may have to redesign the tailhook on the Navy's C model so it can land on a carrier.
Lockheed and program officials have their talking points all ready: A lot of the F-35's testing is on or ahead of schedule, and the airplanes are starting to build up in the services' arsenal, and now the B is back in the Pentagon's good graces. "Probation," in fact, was probably nothing but a publicity move in the first place, a way to communicate to borderline audiences and mainstream reporters that former Secretary Gates was serious about fixing the B, but without any actual danger -- for now.
As you've heard so many times, cancelling the B would mean no fast jets for tomorrow's Marine Corps, would throw Italy's naval aviation plans into chaos, and leave the U.S. Navy with at least two major warships -- the amphibious assault ship USS America and the planned LHA 7 -- designed for an airplane they would never carry. But Gates had to do something to quiet critics baying for the end of the B or the whole F-35 shootin' match. So he wrote a big check he knew he'd never have to cash, saying that the jet had two years to get its act together or he'd support its cancellation.
Only Gates knew he wouldn't be SecDef when that bill came due, and that Lockheed, Marine Corps and program officials were already knuckling down to tackle the B's problems. Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos began telling people that he'd become personally involved in running the program, that the airplane couldn't take on an ounce of weight without him knowing it, and that all the B's issues were fundamentally fixable. He would go into Steve Trimble levels of detail about the bulkheads that needed to be adjusted, the components that weren't working, and ended up with an optimistic assessment.
So the F-35B's "probation" was a new version of the old joke about how the number of mines you need to make a minefield -- none; all you have to do is put out a press release. Friday's announcement is the equivalent of a second press release saying the minefield was painstakingly swept and the channel is once again clear.
Lifting probation probably will buy the F-35 some goodwill inside the Beltway, but it could also remind people of DoD's astronomical cost estimates and the fuzzy understanding about when these airplanes will actually begin flying actual missions. The Navy Department's top weapons-buyer, Sean Stackley, said at the Surface Navy Association show that there is no target date for the C's initial operational capability -- the Building has gone from pushing estimates back to withholding them altogether.
Stackley said the outlook was good and that "there was a lot of progress being made across the board," but that service officials and the Defense Acquisition Board would have to get another update before they could start to think about IOC. As ever, the jet's advocates hope that it can continue to outpace its skeptics and critics.