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Air Force declares F-35A Joint Strike Fighter ready for combat

An F-35A Lightning II taxis across the flightline on Eglin Air Force Base, May 28, 2014.

CHRISTOPHER CALLAWAY/U.S. AIR FORCE

By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 2, 2016

WASHINGTON – The Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter is now operational and ready for combat, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, announced Tuesday.

The F-35 is a fifth-generation stealth fighter that the military is counting on to replace its aging fleet of fighter jets and provide advanced electronic warfare, air-to-ground and air-to-air combat capabilities.

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Carlisle said Tuesday that the Air Force’s version had met all the criteria to reach “initial operational capability,” including its ability to destroy enemy air defenses in a contested environment. He said the service has the pilots, maintainers and logistics ready to support an operational squadron of 12-24 aircraft.

“The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory, because it can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield,” Carlisle said.

In all, the services plan to field 2,457 of the new jets to eventually replace their aging workhorses, including the Air Force’s F-16 and A-10 jets, the Marines AV-8 Harriers and the Navy and Marine’s fleet of F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet fighters.

But, during the announcement Tuesday, Carlisle said the F-35 was not being deployed to the Middle East in the near future.

“It is scheduled farther down the road,” he said.

Carlisle said the schedule was not due to problems with the aircraft but the specific requests by combat commanders for certain air capabilities.

Carlisle said the aircraft would eventually be deployed to Europe and the Pacific as well.

The F-35, a $1.5 trillion 20-year program, has faced significant criticism over the years for missing production deadlines, for cost overruns and questions on whether it will actually provide a reliable replacement to the aircraft wearing out faster than expected due to their heavy and non-stop deployments against the Islamic State group.

The Marines declared their vertical-takeoff and landing variant, the F-35B, operational in 2015 and created its second operational squadron by replacing Harriers in June with F-35Bs at Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma, Arizona. While the Marines variant has been declared ready for combat for more than a year, it has not yet been deployed to combat. The Navy variant is not expected to reach the same initial operating capability until 2019.

The lack of combat for the Marines’ variant has led to continued questions by critics whether the Air Force’s version of the aircraft is truly ready.

“I do not expect to see it [the Air Force variant] flying combat anytime soon,” said Dan Grazier, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who is now a senior defense fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan government watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

Grazier said he thinks the Air Force’s announcement Tuesday was based more on meeting the program’s initial operating capability deadline than the aircraft’s readiness.

The Air Force is planning to buy the bulk of the new jets, a total of 1,736 at a cost of more than $100 million per airplane, according to analysis of congressional budget documents by the Project on Government Oversight.

The 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, will provide the Air Force’s first operational F-35A squadron. Thirty-four airmen from the squadron will fly and maintain the F-35A alongside Air Force Reservists from Hill’s 419th Fighter Wing.

The plane is being produced by countries around the globe, including Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Italy, Denmark, Canada, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Israel and Australia.

copp.tara@stripes.com
Twitter:@TaraCopp
 

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