NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Maryland (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday that he was endorsing the Marine Corps version of the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet because sufficient progress had been made on resolving technical issues.
The F-35B model is the short takeoff, vertical landing (STOVL) version of the stealthy fighter that Lockheed is developing for the U.S. military and eight partner countries.
"We've made real progress ... towards fixing some of the real problems we have with STOVL," Panetta said during a town hall meeting at the naval air station in southern Maryland where the F-35B model is being tested.
Panetta removed the F-35B model from a two-year "probation" a year ahead of schedule because its development was back on track with two other F-35 models being developed for the U.S. Air Force and Navy.
Vice Admiral David Venlet, who runs the F-35 program for the Pentagon, said the decision was "hard-earned and rewarding" for the military and industry team that had worked on resolving issues with the jet.
"The positive momentum generated during 2011 will continue as testing proceeds, production aircraft are delivered, and fleet training begins in 2012," he said.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Panetta's decision underscored the U.S. military's commitment to the overall F-35 program. "This is an important aircraft, not just for the United States but for our international partners."
Captain Erik Etz, who leads the F-35 testing program at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, said the F-35B had exceeded the number of testing points that had been planned for 2011. The jet can take off from shorter runways and land like a helicopter.
Panetta's announcement lifted a black cloud that had hung over the $382 billion Joint Strike Fighter program, but it still faces a significant slowdown in planned production under the Pentagon's fiscal 2013 budget proposal.
Sources following budget deliberations have said that the Pentagon will postpone orders for 179 of a planned 423 planes over five years beginning in fiscal 2013, a reduction of about 24 percent.
Lockheed has said that growing international demand may help offset slower U.S. production rates. The company expects the F-35 to account for about 20 percent of revenue once full production begins.
(Reporting By David Alexander)