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New Marine squadron of F-35B jets arrives in Arizona (+video)

New Marine squadron: Marine Corps pilots are the first to fly the new F-35B, a next-generation strike fighter jet. The new squadron will replace Cold War-era aircraft such as the F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier. Is the F-35B ready for combat?

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Neither McCain nor Levin could be reached for comment on the squadron.

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The developer of the aircraft, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., is building three versions of the F-35 — one each for the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

Schedule delays and cost overruns have dogged the F-35's development, making it the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program ever. Ten years in, the total F-35 program cost has jumped from $233 billion to an estimated $385 billion. Recent estimates suggest the entire program could exceed $1 trillion over 50 years.

Aviation safety consultant and retired Marine Corps Col. Pete Field, who served as the former director of the Naval Test Pilot School, said the Marine Corps' F-35B is the most complicated of the three versions because it can take off from shorter runways and land vertically. One of the problems earlier on in its development was it was heavier than predicted, Field said.

It was lightened substantially, but Field said that could also mean structural problems in the long run.

"It remains to be seen if the F-35B has a long life and is structurally sound," said Field, who was the chief test pilot for the F/A-18. "We won't know for two to three years after it's been in operation. If nothing crops up, perhaps the engineers have done their best work."

The F-35B stands out among military aircraft because it can be launched from small Navy ships and land in confined areas, allowing it to support ground troops on smaller battlefields. Its sophisticated stealth capabilities also means, like the Air Force's F-22, the aircraft can fly into enemy territory without being detected by radar.

"All we can do is hope that they have solved all the program problems and that they've got a pretty good airplane," Field said.

Former Marine and Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr., R-Calif., who is the only member of Congress to have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said he trusts the decision of Panetta and Marine Corps leaders.

"The 35B is going to take the Marine Corps to a new level of sophisticated flight technology," Hunter told The Associated Press. "The ability for the F-35B to take off and land in an extremely constrained lading zone, that's huge for what it brings to the table. The Harrier was a great airplane but it was also limited. It doesn't have all the new technology. The F-35B has that."

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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