Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft represents the "future of tactical aviation" for U.S. and British forces, as Britain prepares to take delivery of its first test aircraft on Thursday in Fort Worth.
The scheduled delivery at the Lockheed Martin plant in west Fort Worth shows there has been considerable progress made in the F-35 program, particularly in the past year, according to a report by Reuters new service. Panetta made the remarks at a Pentagon press conference alongside Philip Hammond, his British counterpart.
The radar-evading F-35 is the Pentagon's costliest arms purchase, expected to top $396 billion for 2,443 aircraft in three models through the mid-2030s. It is being built for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and eight co-development partners -- Britain, Italy, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. Israel and Japan also are buying the F-35 and other nations have shown interest.
The Defense Department this year postponed production of 179 jets until after 2017, providing more time for development and testing in an effort to curb costly retrofits. The program's latest restructuring, the third such revamp, added 33 months and $7.9 billion to the development plan.
The Pentagon is fully confident that it will be able to meet its "full commitment" to the program, Panetta said, despite a flattening of its overall spending amid U.S. deficit-reduction requirements.
"The F-35 represents, I believe, the future of tactical aviation for both of our armed services," he said. It will make it possible to "effectively control the skies as we confront the enemies of tomorrow."
The UK will take delivery of a B-model F-35, the short takeoff-vertical landing version being developed primarily for the Marine Corps and the Brits. Development of the F-35B has been the most challenging and costly part of the program, but Hammond said he was confident the challenges were being surmounted, according to an officials transcript.
He was to see the aircraft demonstrated later Wednesday at the Navy's Patuxent River flight test center.
Panetta said that even with the looming specter of budget cuts the Pentagon remains committed to completing development and acquisition of the F-35. The first combat ready military units are not expected to be ready before late this decade.
"We're committed to all of the three variants, because we think that each of the forces will be able to use that kind of weaponry for the future, so that we can effectively control the skies as we confront the enemies of tomorrow," Panetta said.