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Military shows off latest success of troubled F-35 fighter

By Charley Keyes, CNN Senior National Security Producer
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue October 4, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Marine Corps version of the F-35 makes a successful landing on a ship at sea
  • The F-35 has been under development for 10 years
  • Former Secretary of Defense Gates set an ultimatum for the fighter's development in January
  • If problems can't be fixed in "a two-year probation," the plane should be canceled, he said

Washington (CNN) -- The Pentagon is doing an online victory dance about the latest win for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The Marine Corps version of the plane -- already under a cloud because of past development troubles -- made its first landing on a ship at sea. The short-take-off-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) version of the fighter landed on the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship.

The Air Force will receive a standard-take-off version and the Navy F-35s will land on carriers. The Marine version is for either at-sea landings on carriers or on short battlefield strips.

"The first at-sea vertical landing is a huge milestone," said Marine Corps Col. Roger Cordell in a press release. Cordell is the military site director for F-35 test and evaluation at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. "We're still early in this test period, and we expect to learn a lot more, but this is a great step toward delivering the capability to the fleet."

The military posted a video of the landing on the YouTube website.

The landing comes eight months after then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates set an ultimatum for the the Marine Corps version of the jet -- either deliver or die. The F-35 has been under development for 10 years.

Gates in January said the Marine version was experiencing significant testing problems. And he warned that structure and propulsion redesign could add both weight and cost to a project that had little capacity to absorb either.

"As a result, I am placing the STOVL variant on the equivalent of a two-year probation," Gates said at the Pentagon on January 6. "If we cannot fix this variant during this time frame and get it back on track in terms of performance, cost and schedule, then I believe it should be canceled. "

That probation still has another 16 months to run, and this week's success won't have any official impact on that timetable. But the military officers affiliated with the program were upbeat.

"It is no small feat to put together sea trials," said Vice Adm. David Venlet, F-35 program executive officer. "This test was planned to happen on 3 October back in early spring of this year and the team delivered on schedule. Signs of dependable performance are emerging across broad aspects of the development program."

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