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Marine Corps: Poor tests score should not delay F-35's Beaufort arrival

An Airman gives the go-ahead for take-off to the pilot of an F-35B at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., June 27, 2012.

BEAUFORT, S.C. — The U.S. military's next-generation aircraft should arrive on time in Beaufort County, despite falling short of testing goals, a Marine Corps official said Monday.

The Pentagon's chief weapons tester sent Congress a report Friday describing more problems for the program that has been marked by delays and cost increases.

The report reveals Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has completed more than one-third of its planned flight tests, but still faces problems with the helmet needed to fly the jet, software development and weapons integration, according to news reports.

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A copy of the report was not available Monday for media outlets outside Washington, D.C., but was to be posted to a Defense Department website Tuesday, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.

Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort is scheduled to become home to three active-duty F-35 squadrons and two pilot-training squadrons.

Base officials declined to comment Monday about the planes' arrival, referring questions to the Pentagon.

"Plans to move aircraft from Eglin Air Force Base to Beaufort are still expected to begin in 2014, and do not anticipate a delay at this point," Capt. Richard Ulsh, media officer at Marine Corps Headquarters, said. He declined further comment.

The $396 billion weapons program, the Pentagon's most expensive ever, exceeded the number of flight and systems tests planned for 2012 but lagged in some areas because of unresolved problems and newly discovered issues, according to Bloomberg News. Chief among them were stealth coatings on the horizontal tail surfaces that peel away or become scorched during high-speed or high-altitude flights, according to part of the report posted online by Time Magazine. The coating makes the plane invisible to radar.

The Marine Corps' version of the jet has experienced problems with its weapon bay doors and with an engine lift fan needed for vertical landings.

Durability testing of the Marines' version also had to be halted last month after multiple cracks were found on the underside of the fuselage, according to Bloomberg. Previously, cracking in the bulkhead delayed testing for 16 months, until it resumed in January 2012.

The F-35 is being produced while it's being developed, an approach called "concurrency" that was intended to deliver new weapons faster and save money. Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, last year called the dual-track approach "acquisition malpractice," Bloomberg reported.

Retired Marine Col. John Payne, chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee, says despite the report, the F-35 saw major milestones in flight testing in 2012. Among them, the Marine Corps set up its first operational squadron in November in Yuma, Ariz., and last month, the Air Force declared its version of the jet advanced enough to accelerate pilot training.

"You must remember, this plane is not growing out of anything that preceded it," Payne said. "And it gets bad publicity because of its price. But instead of purchasing three new aircraft for the Navy, Marines and Air Force, we now have one. Granted, there are three variants of the plane, but there is still a lot of commonality among them, and that leads to significant cost savings."

Also, the military badly needs a new stealth attack fighter, Payne said, noting that the F-18 Hornet the F-35 will replace "is far from invisible."

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