By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Monday said it was temporarily suspending high-speed ground and flight operations of more than 15 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets after discovering improperly packed parachutes under the pilot's ejection seat.
The move affects six Air Force variants of the F-35 fighter jet based at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which means flight testing there will be halted until the parachute issues are resolved, according to Lockheed spokeswoman Laurie Quincy.
The suspension also affects nine F-35 fighters to be used for training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and three planes that are nearly completed at Lockheed's Fort Worth, Texas, factory, according to Lockheed and the Pentagon's F-35 program office.
It will not affect eight F-35 test aircraft at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, because they had received older ejection seats whose parachutes were properly packed, the Pentagon and Lockheed said in a joint statement.
It estimated that it would take about 10 days until the first set of repacked parachutes were available.
The grounding, first reported by Reuters earlier Monday, comes as the $382 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program braces for a third restructuring in three years.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week announced another slowdown in procurement to allow more time for development testing, and to avert costly retrofits if problems arise.
Panetta gave no details, but Reuters has quoted sources familiar with the budget plans as saying the Pentagon will postpone buying an additional 179 F-35 jets over the next five years, pushing their procurement off until after fiscal 2017.
Richard Aboulafia, defense analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said the parachute problem added to a spate of negative news on the radar-evading fighter plane, which is being designed for the U.S. military and eight partner countries.
"There's a perception that they're moving too fast on production before ironing out all of the problems, and this is going to reinforce that perception," said Aboulafia.
He said the Pentagon was also clearly tapping the F-35 -- the largest U.S. weapons program -- as a bill-payer to help the department reach required cuts in Pentagon spending.
SOME TO BE REPACKED IN 10 DAYS
The Pentagon's program office, in a joint statement with Lockheed, said the affected ejection seats were packed in reverse order by privately owned UK-based Martin Baker Aircraft Corp, apparently due to improperly drafted procedures.
The F-35 program office said it was working with Lockheed and its subcontractors Martin Baker and BAE Systems to get the parachutes repacked as quickly as possible. It said the first set of repacked parachutes should be available in 10 days.
The Pentagon said the problem affected six F-35A jets at Edwards Air Force Base and six A-models and three short takeoff Marine Corps models at Eglin Air Force Base.
The planes in Florida were only performing ground testing, which could continue, it said.
The parachutes on those jets will be repacked correctly before the Air Force begins training F-35 pilots there this summer.
Three planes that were nearing the end of production in Fort Worth would also be affected, which means they would not be able to have their first flight until the repacked parachutes arrive.
"All of the other planes in production are far enough from being finished that it won't impact their normally scheduled first flight date," Lockheed's Quincy told Reuters in an emailed statement.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Derek Caney, John Wallace and Steve Orlofsky)