The US Marine Corps’ variant of the F-35 Lightning II is almost ready for its combat debut.
“We’re going to start to see that aeroplane deploy here overseas after the first of the year,” Gen. Robert Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, said this week.
The “jack-of-all-trades” aircraft was designed to replace the Corps’ Harrier, Hornet, and Prowler aircraft but has had significant snags.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 is America’s priciest weapons system, and its development has become one of the most challenged programs in the history of the US Department of Defence.
Australia has committed to buying 72 of the F-35A models.
“We thought we were going to get that aeroplane a little bit earlier, but we didn’t, but now we stood up our second squadron,” Gen. Neller said during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Simarily, on July 29, when asked if the F-35B could fly combat missions to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the US Marine Corps’ head of aviation said, “we’re ready to do that.”
Noting that the decision to deploy the fifth-generation jet into combat would come from higher command, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation, said that the F-35B is “ready to go right now.”
“We got a jewel in our hands and we’ve just started to exploit that capability, and we’re very excited about it,” Davis said during a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute on the readiness and future trajectory of Marine aviation.
Davis, who has flown copilot in every type of model series of tilt-rotor, rotary-winged, and tanker aircraft in the Marine inventory, said that the F-35 is an aeroplane he’s excited about.
“The bottom line is everybody who flies a pointy-nose aeroplane in the Marine Corps wants to fly this jet,” Davis said.
Last summer, then Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford declared initial operational capability (IOC) for 10 F-35B jets, the first of the sister-service branches.
“There were a lot of people out here in the press that said, ‘Hey, the Marines are just going to declare IOC because it would be politically untenable not to do that,'” Davis said.
“IOC in the Marine Corps means we will deploy that aeroplane in combat. That’s not a decision I was gonna take lightly, nor Gen. Dunford,” he said.
Ahead of IOC, Davis said that the Marine Corps “stacked the deck with the F-35 early on” by assigning Top Gun school graduates and weapons-tactics instructors to test the plane.
“The guys that flew that aeroplane and maintained that aeroplane were very, very, hard graders,” he said.
Davis added that the jet proved to be “phenomenally successful” during testing: “It does best when it’s out front, doing the killing.”
The Marine Corps’ first F-35B squadron is scheduled to go to sea in spring 2018.
Meanwhile, the Air Force, which has been the most bullish on the F-35’s combat capabilities declared their variant ready for combat last week.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program’s executive officer, said that the Air Force’s decision to declare the F-35A’s initial operational capability “sends a simple and powerful message to America’s friends and foes alike, the F-35 can do its mission.”
“The roads leading to IOC for both services were not easy and these accomplishments are tangible testaments to the positive change happening in the F-35 program,” Bogdan said.
As the Air Force is buying nearly 70% of the fifth-generation jets being made domestically — 1,763 of 2,443 aircraft — the Air Force sets the economies of scale for the tri-service fighter, with each plane costing a cool $100 million.
Lockheed Martin, considered a bellwether for the US defence sector, is expected to generate nearly a fifth of its $50 billion in 2016 sales solely from the F-35 program.
Currently the US Navy variant, the F-35C, is scheduled to reach IOC by February 2019.
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