The Marine Corps’ variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter won’t reach initial operational capability until 2015, three years later than originally envisioned and one year later than a revised timeframe, the Marines’ aviation chief said yesterday.

“It’s gone from 2012 to probably 2014, and my guess now it’ll probably be somewhere in the 2015 timeframe,” Lt. Gen. Terry Robling said of the F-35B Lightning II at a breakfast sponsored by the Navy League.

The F-35, which is built by Lockheed Martin [LMT], has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, prompting strong congressional criticism and even some calls for canceling the program.

The challenges with Marines’ F-35B have been the most difficult to overcome because of its short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) feature.

The F-35B program was placed in probation in February by then-defense secretary Robert Gates. Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month that he believed the fighter was on schedule to meet a two-year timeframe for lifting probation (Defense Daily Sept. 14, 2011).

“We’re on schedule to (come off probation) within those two years,” Carter told the senators. “And if we resolve (the problems) within two years than we have done what (Gates) said probation was supposed to do.”

Robling said he expected to resolve 80 percent of the major issues with the plane by the end of the year and entirely by early 2012.

“The engineering fixes…are close to being taken care of,” he said.

Gates’ overall restructuring of the F-35 program extended the plane’s developmental phase, reduced the number of production aircraft in the early years, and placed the F-35B variant on probation.

The Marine Corps plans to buy 420 Joint Strike Fighters, 340 of the F-35Bs and 80 of the F-35C variant being procured by the Navy, Robling said. But the program could be faced with reduced spending.

The Senate Appropriations Committee this month voted to slash $695 million from the Pentagon’s overall budget request for the F-35. SAC cut $37.9 million from the Navy’s $1.3-billion research request (Defense Daily, Sept. 14, 2011).

Robling said he was confident the plane will perform well in sea trials set to begin in October aboard the USS Wasp (LHD-1).

“I am very confident that the sea trials for the aircraft will show it capable of flying on and off the L-class ships with not a lot of major problems,” he said.

The Marine Corps plans to get the first training aircraft in November at Eglin AFB, Fla. Training, which had been set for March 2012, will likely be pushed back a few months, Robling said.