WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Marine Corps version of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet could soon be taken off a "probation" imposed by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a U.S. Marine Corps official said on Wednesday.
General Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told an investment conference that he was "pretty bullish" on the F-35B, the short takeoff, vertical landing variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
He cited progress in fixing technical problems and said the fighter jet met 98 percent of its test points this year.
Gates put the F-35B on a two-year probation last January and threatened to cancel further work on it unless technical issues were resolved. But Dunford said he was optimistic about the plane's future after a year of solid progress.
"It's no longer ... in the cross hairs," Dunford told the conference hosted by Credit Suisse and Aviation Week, noting that an engineering solution had been identified for every challenge that had arisen.
Given the progress, the plane already was slowly coming off probation and could see that label removed wholly at the start of 2012, he said.
The F-35 program is the biggest U.S. weapons program, which has prompted speculation that the program may face big cuts as Pentagon budget officials struggle to cut over $450 billion from their plans for the next decade.
The F-35B, designed to take off from shorter runways and land vertically, like a helicopter, is seen as particularly vulnerable given a variety of technical issues.
But Dunford said the new fighter remained a top priority of the Marine Corps, and that its ability to land on shorter runways and twice as many U.S. warships was a critical capability that the military could not do without.
Dunford said the Marines would not accept a "hollow force", and would rather downsize the overall size of their force than send Marines into battle without the right equipment.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa)