Much criticized F-35 goes operational for Marines

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, based out of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., performs a vertical landing as part of required flying field carrier landing practices at the station?s auxiliary landing field, on April 27, 2015.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 31, 2015

WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps on Friday declared the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets operational, marking a milestone for a high-tech aircraft that has been in development for years and been branded the most expensive Pentagon acquisition program in history.

An Arizona-based squadron of the B variant F-35 – capable of vertical takeoffs – was declared ready for service after completing a five-day inspection earlier this month, the service said.

The fifth-generation fighter is described as a flying computer and is lauded by the Pentagon and many lawmakers as the future of combat aviation. But development has taken 14 years and nearly $400 billion, and the aircraft still faces hurdles in reaching its expected capabilities.

On Friday, the Marine Corps said the F-35B has passed a bevy of tests and will transform the way it fights wars.

“Prior to declaring [initial operational capability], we have conducted flight operations for seven weeks at sea aboard an L-Class carrier, participated in multiple large force exercises, and executed a recent operational evaluation, which included multiple live-ordnance sorties,” Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said in a statement.

Dunford said the F-35 is important because it allows the Marines to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers.

The F-35 program has suffered numerous delays during its long development. But the Marine Corps decision Friday is an affirmation that it is now on track, said Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“It is also a reminder that we still have work ahead to deliver the full warfighting capability required by all three services and our partners while we continue our successful efforts to drive cost out of the program,” Kendall said in a statement.

The Pentagon told Congress earlier this year that the Marine Corps variant of the F-35 would initially lack the full range of capabilities expected from the advanced aircraft -- it will not be able to use night-vision technology or carry more than four bombs and missiles.

That would put it behind the 1970s era A-10 Thunderbolts it is slated to replace.

Meanwhile, an F-35 was bested by an F-16, a stalwart but aging fighter, in nearly all aerial maneuvering during a January test near Edwards Air Force Base, Calif, according to the website War Is Boring. The site released a five-page report by the joint strike fighter test pilot.

Development continues for more variants of the F-35 that will go to the other service branches.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten