The U.S. Air Force declared its version of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 ready if needed for limited combat operations, a milestone for the $379 billion program that’s the Pentagon’s costliest.
The service’s announcement Tuesday that the combat jet has an “initial operational capability” reflects progress after early years marked by development setbacks and rising costs. But the F-35 is still in development, with flawed software among its biggest challenges, and won’t have full combat capability for at least another three years.
The Air Force announced the initial milestone at the start of a five-month period it had set aside to make the decision. Lockheed’s fortunes ride on the F-35, the biggest source of revenue for the world’s largest defense company. The advanced fighter accounted for 21 percent of Lockheed’s $12.9 billion net sales during the second quarter, according to a regulatory filing, and its impact should grow as the jet moves to full production.
“The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory, because it can go where our” older aircraft “cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield,” Gen. Herb “Hawk” Carlisle, head of the Air Combat Command, said in a statement, referring to the Air Force version of the fighter.
The move comes about a year after the Marine Corps made a similar declaration for its version of the F-35, the most complex of the different models because it is designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings.
The Air Force’s F-35 won’t be declared to posses full combat capability until it undergoes vigorous operational exercises that won’t begin until August 2018 at the earliest and then will last as long as a year. That would be a year later than planned largely because of technical issues that the Air Force now considers sufficiently resolved or on a path to being resolved. The first operational squadron of the F-35A will be at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
The initial aircraft won’t have all the electronic combat, data fusion, weapons capacity or automated maintenance and diagnostics capabilities until the most advanced version of its complex software is fielded by 2018.
The F-35 initially will carry either two 2,000-pound GPS-guided bombs or two 500-pound laser guided weapons, plus two air-to-air missiles.
Lockheed has said it is on track to deliver 53 F-35s this year, bringing cumulative deliveries to about 180. The company has said it expects to more than double output to 120 aircraft by 2019.
The Air Force doesn’t have a recent track record of deploying combat planes in missions soon after a combat capability is declared. The B-1B bomber, for example, first flew missions in December 1998 against an Iraqi Republican Guard target, about 12 years after it was declared ready. Lockheed’s F-22 stealth fighter flew its first combat missions in September 2014 against Islamic State targets, about nine years after it was deemed combat-ready.
Michael Gilmore, head of the Pentagon’s testing office, warned in January that more than 500 of the fighter jets may be built before combat testing is complete, requiring costly retrofitting of the earlier F-35s.
In June, he said today’s F-35s will “have limited combat capability.”
“If used in combat, these aircraft have been fielded with known deficiencies and will require support” from other aircraft or ground operators “to avoid threats, assist in target acquisition, and control weapon employment for the limited” weapons available, he said.
The F-35 is a flying computer, with more than 8 million lines of software code. At a projected cost of $379 billion for a fleet of 2,443 aircraft, it’s also the costliest U.S. weapon system and one of the most closely scrutinized. The Air Force plans to buy 1,763 of them.
The plane is built in Fort Worth.
Carlisle told reporters last month he wouldn’t hesitate to deploy the aircraft for combat if its capability was requested by one the U.S.’s regional commanders.
Julie Johnsson contributed.