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US Marines to split F-35 purchase between STOVL, carrier variants

The US Marine Corps has agreed to buy the carrier variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in addition to the short take-off and vertical landing version.

Gen James Amos, USMC commandant, confirms delays and uncertainties associated with the F-35B STOVL variant have forced a change to the acquisition plan.

"When we set the requirement in for STOVL aircraft our hope was we would be able to, some day, fly some of those aircraft off [large-deck] aircraft carriers," Amos said, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 8 March. "That's yet to be seen whether that would be possible so in the meantime it would seem prudent that we should buy some number of C variants even early on so we can begin to transition our force there."

The US Navy and USMC planned to buy a combination of 680 F-35Bs and Cs, with about 460 of the former and 220 of the latter. However, the services are re-evaluating the procurement split between the two variants, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told the Senate committee.

"We are undergoing a TacAir [tactical aircraft] integration look across the navy and Marine Corps to see what the proper mix is of Cs for the navy and Marine Corps," Mabus said.

The TacAir integration study "will make sure that we continue that integration and make sure marines continue to fly off carriers in strike fighters as well as in vertical take-off and landing aircraft", he said.

At the same time, USMC remains committed and enthusiastic about the STOVL variant despite the testing delays and performance challenges that prompted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to impose a two-year probation on the F-35B.

Amos praises Gates' decision to add more funding in the development budget for the F-35B, which will help solve the structural, propulsion and reliability shortfalls identified in testing last year. "Things are lined up right now for success," Amos says.

"It's my hope we can get off probation well before two years. My intent is to, some time this spring, [provide Gates with] a set of metrics that he might consider as the threshold for getting the airplane off probation and getting it back into the regular mode of production," he adds.

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