WASHINGTON — The United States will soon hand over the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter slated for international delivery to Britain, defense secretaries from both countries announced Wednesday at the Pentagon.
They said the delivery scheduled for Thursday is a sign the embattled, costly stealth fighter program is back on track and a symbol of the nations’ tight bond, which Defense Minister Philip Hammond called “our most important defense relationship.”
Britain agreed more than a decade ago to buy 138 of the B variant of the Lockheed-Martin aircraft, which is capable of vertical takeoff and landing, for deployment from aircraft carriers. But ballooning costs and missed deadlines have since raised doubts in the United States and among nations that had agreed to purchase the fighter about the overall program’s viability.
Former defense secretary Robert Gates placed the program on “probation” to force corrections, a status lifted by the current secretary, Leon Panetta, in January.
“I’m pleased by the significant progress that the program has made across all the service developments, particularly in the past year,” Panetta said. “Although there is still a long road ahead to complete development of the JSF, we are making good progress in testing and stabilizing future production and sustainment plans.”
In addition, both defense leaders called for an end to violence in Syria as rebels take on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Because of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, an orderly transition of power is a must, Hammond said.
With fighting now extending into the capital, Damascus, including a suicide bombing Wednesday that killed the Syrian defense minister, the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous, he said.
“I think what we’re seeing is an opposition which is emboldened, clearly an opposition which has access increasingly to weaponry, probably some fragmentation around the edges of the regime as well,” Hammond said.