An F-35A Lightning II flies over Death Valley National Park, Calif., March 7, 2024.

An F-35A Lightning II flies over Death Valley National Park, Calif., March 7, 2024. (William Lewis/U.S. Air Force)

The Pentagon has cleared the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter for full rate of production after years of delay.

The move “helps to validate the aircraft’s capabilities for present and future partners of the F-35 enterprise,” the Pentagon said in a news release Tuesday.

The change in designation allows the F-35 Joint Program Office to negotiate multiyear contracts for the fighter with manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

Just over 990 F-35 aircraft have been delivered to the U.S. and foreign military services over the past 14 years, the news release said.

The F-35 is a single-seat, stealthy combat jet with highly advanced electronics used in warfare and surveillance.

Full-rate production was delayed by a series of problems that began in 2012, the Government Accountability Office said in a December report.

The most recent issue was a plethora of problems with a simulator running the F-35’s mission systems software that provides complex test scenarios replicating real-world settings, according to the GAO report.

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program has proven to be the Defense Department’s most expensive weapon system program, with an estimated price tag of more than $1.7 trillion to buy, operate and sustain them, according to the report.

The Pentagon plans to acquire just over 2,450 F-35s for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, according to a 2022 report by the Congressional Research Service. U.S. allies are expected to buy hundreds more.

Each service uses the same basic F-35 but with variations to fit for their missions. Four to five F-35s are delivered each month, CRS reported, and between 156 to 170 would be produced each year in full production.

William LaPlante, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said in the Tuesday news release that production approval was a “major achievement” that will foster integrated deterrence by U.S. forces and ally and partner nation militaries.

“With this milestone, the program is now well positioned to efficiently produce and deliver the next generation of aircraft to meet the evolving needs of our services, partners, and [foreign military service] customers,” the release states.

The Air Force received its first F-35A in 2011 and declared operational capability in 2016, according to a Lockheed Martin factsheet online. It is the biggest buyer of the jet, with squadrons based in nine U.S. mainland bases and in the United Kingdom.

The Marine Corps reached operational capability in 2015, with squadrons at five mainland bases and at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan.

The Navy achieved operational capability in 2019, with F-35Cs adapted for use on aircraft carriers.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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