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Marines establish first operational squad of F-35 fighters

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

(Reuters) - The Marine Corps on Tuesday established its first operational squadron of F-35 fighter jets at an air station in Yuma, Arizona, a move that officials said showed progress on the Pentagon's biggest and most scrutinized weapons program.

Three F-35B fighters built by Lockheed Martin Corp have already arrived at the base, with 13 more to come over the next year. The service has also spent about half a billion dollars to build new hangars for the planes, a high-end flight simulator for training pilots, and maintenance facilities, according to Captain Staci Reidinger, a spokeswoman for the base.

The new squadron, which is slated to start initial flights later this year or early next, was formally unveiled at a ceremony at the Arizona air base that included top Pentagon and Lockheed executives, as well as Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It marked good news for the radar-evading Lockheed fighter program, which has been restructured three times in recent years to save money and allow more time to work out technical kinks.

Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said it was a historic day for the smallest of the U.S. military services, which urgently needs to replace its aging fleet of older model F/A-18 fighters built by Boeing Co, and AV-8B Harrier jets, which are growing expensive to maintain.

"This squadron will be the first, not only in the Marine Corps or the United States, but the first in the world to bring a fifth-generation, multi-role, (short takeoff vertical landing) stealth fighter ... into an operational status," he said in a speech at the base. A copy of the speech was made available to Reuters.

Amos, who flew the F-4 Phantom fighters that were used extensively during the Vietnam war, said the new plane had "eye-watering" capabilities, although he said he could not discuss most of them since they are classified.

He said establishment of the squadron at the Yuma air base, coupled with testing and training going on elsewhere, showed "tangible progress" on the F-35B model, which can take off from shorter runways and land vertically like a Harrier jump jet.

Just two years ago, the Pentagon had threatened to cancel the F-35B program unless it made significant technical progress.

Marine Corps Air Station Yuma will eventually have five operational squadrons of the B-model of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed is developing three variants of the fighter for the U.S. military and eight international partners -- Britain, Italy, Norway, Australia, Canada, Turkey, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Defense consultant Robbin Laird said the F-35 would be a key asset in the Pentagon's increased focus on Asia since its ability to operate with other allies such as Australia and Japan would allow the U.S. military to maintain a persistent presence in the region.

MCCAIN "ENCOURAGED" BY PROGRESS AFTER YEARS OF SETBACKS

McCain, who has been critical of the F-35 program after years of cost increases and technical challenges, lauded recent progress on what he called an "enormously challenging program."

"I am -- after many years of frustration and setbacks -- encouraged that the overall program is moving in the right direction," McCain said in a speech at the base, a copy of which was emailed to Reuters.

But he cautioned that much work was still needed before the program could be called a success, including better cooperation among various Pentagon agencies, and between the government and the defense companies that are building the plane.

Air Force Major General Christopher Bogdan, who will become the Pentagon F-35 program executive officer on December 6, in September said ties between the company and the government were the worst he had ever seen. {ID:nL1E8KA3OG]

"It's a big milestone," said Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Scott, who has been flying Harrier jets for 14 years and commands the new squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121.

"There's something to be said for walking into a new hangar and seeing it all in person. Airplane landing, people getting out, Marines working on it," he told Reuters. "Yep, it exists. It's not just a distant unicorn far away."

The squadron Scott leads was first activated in 1941, and was also the first to fly the Boeing F/A-18D fighter in 1989.

Yuma will carry out the operational evaluation of the F-35B plane, which is needed before it can be cleared for operational use, something that Marines hope to achieve in 2015.

First local area flights are likely to begin just before Christmas, or early in January, after some additional conditions have been met, Colonel Kevin Killea, who oversees aviation requirements for the Marine Corps, told Reuters.

Killea said the military and Lockheed were continuing to work through technical challenges on the new fighter, including a sophisticated new helmet and software development, but said the start up of the squadron was a step forward and should also reassure international partners on the program.

"We're not trying to kid anybody about these guys being operational in six months and deploying. That's a long way off. But the airplane is maturing, it's moving along ... and we're happy to have it in the hands of operators," he said.

Killea said some modifications would be made to the F-35 planes that had been ferried to the base, including changes to strengthen the air inlet door used for vertical landings, but the changes should be completed over the next few months.

Lockheed said in a statement that the three F-35Bs delivered to Yuma brought the total number of all F-35 planes delivered in 2012 to 20.

(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington; editing by Carol Bishopric)

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