WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps declared its version of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter ready for limited combat operations, a milestone for the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program.
“The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our nation with its first fifth-generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Marine Corps commandant, said Friday in an emailed statement.
The declaration of “initial operational capability” came more than five years later than originally predicted in 2001, when the F-35 program began. Earlier delays resulted from difficulties in reducing the plane’s weight, with its propulsion system and with reliability.
Shortcomings in the current version of the fighter’s software limit how many weapons it can carry and how many planes can share data during a mission.
The Marine model, the F-35B, is the most complex of three versions. It’s being watched as a bellwether for the program, which is projected to cost $391.1 billion for a planned fleet of 2,443 aircraft. The Marines plan to buy about 353 F-35Bs. Britain and Italy also are buying the model.
Dunford’s declaration allows for a 10-aircraft squadron at Yuma, Arizona, to take on certain combat missions until software giving the F-35 its full capability is scheduled to be available by late 2017.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer. told Congress last month that the jet’s operating software is ready to go “with some minor workarounds” that will be remedied.
Marine Corps officials say the aircraft could perform the full spectrum of missions, from close air support of ground troops to air-to-air duels, if it’s called into combat.
Currently, “the F-35B’s sensor, self-defense, and stealth capabilities will be nearly identical to the 2017 fully combat configured F-35, making it capable in highly contested threat environments,” Maj. Paul Greenberg, a Marine Corps spokesman, said in an email.
Still, while two aircraft could swap accurate data, a four- plane formation couldn’t share information gathered by ground and air sensors until the software is improved.
Also, current F-35Bs are limited to carrying two air-to-air or GPS-guided air-to-ground weapons in an interior weapons bay and none under its wings. The improved software due in 2017 will let the aircraft carry four or more varied weapons.
In a ground-attack mission, current F-35Bs have limited means to communicate with troops, spot targets and fly at night, according to the Pentagon’s director of combat testing, Michael Gilmore. The aircraft also have limited electronic warfare capability to detect and counter enemy air defenses, according to Gilmore’s office.
“The limitations result in increased pilot workload and the likelihood” that if the F-35B is used in combat, it “will need the support of a command-and-control system or other aircraft that will improve situation awareness and assist them in employment of the limited weapons,” Gilmore’s spokesman, Air Force Major Eric Badger, said in an e-mail.
In contested airspace, the F-35B “would need to avoid threat engagements and will likely require augmentation by other friendly forces,” he said.
Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates placed the F-35 on probation in January 2011 over reliability concerns. That was lifted a year later as the aircraft’s performance improved, but a new assessment by the head of Pentagon combat weapons testing may resurrect the earlier questions.
The F-35B demonstrated poor reliability in a 12-day exercise at sea, according to Gilmore, the U.S. military’s top testing officer. Six F-35Bs were available for flights only half of the time needed, Gilmore said in a July 22 memo. A Marine Corps spokesman said the readiness rate was more than 65 percent.
— Johnsson reported from Chicago.