The Pentagon's biggest buyer of the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter declared the aircraft ready for combat Tuesday with the achievement of initial operational capability.
Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that the Air Force's F-35A was ready for combat, adding that he hoped to see the aircraft deployed to the European and Pacific theaters of operation for training and partnership within the next 18 months.
"It is a fantastic airplane," Carlisle said. "It's something that the American military, given the national security strategy -- we need it.
"If you look at the potential adversaries out there or the potential environments where we have to operate this airplane, the attributes that the F-35 brings -- the ability to penetrate contested airspace, the ability to deliver precision munitions with a sensor suite fusing multiple information sources -- is something our nation needs to be able to do what we're asked to do in support of national security strategy," he added.
The Air Force expects to buy 1,763 of the jets, making the service the biggest purchaser of the aircraft. The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing variant and the cheapest of the three variants in production. The low-rate initial production cost of $98 million is expected to fall to $85 million by 2018, when the fighter enters full production.
For the F-35A, the milestone means the Air Force has a squadron with between 12 and 24 operational aircraft and the training to conduct basic close-air support (CAS) missions, as well as interdiction and suppression and destruction of enemy air defense (SEAD/DEAD) in contested conditions, according to Pentagon documentation.
Carlisle said Tuesday that the Air Force now had 15 aircraft, to be assigned to the 34th Fighter Squadron of the 388th Fighter Wing, based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. They will be flown and maintained with the support of reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, also based at Hill.
The general said he couldn't divulge all the specifics of what constituted basic CAS but noted that some features would be absent until the aircraft upgrades from its basic 3i software to 3f and the follow-on 4 block.
"It doesn't necessarily have all the attributes with respect to things like an IR [infrared] pointer that we use in A-10s, for example, that is not currently in this airplane," Carlisle said. "There are other things with respect to the [Link-16] architecture that we'll continue to improve on so it can hand off information to other airplanes."
The F-35A will also lack advanced CAS potential until after the Small Diameter Bomb II, an advanced precision-guided weapons system, enters service in 2017. It's expected to be integrated with the F-35 in 2022.
The aircraft had been expected to reach IOC between August and December of this year, so Tuesday's announcement represents a relatively early achievement of the milestone. The announcement was widely expected this week after multiple officials told the press the aircraft had completed the key tests needed to reach the capability.
"We have achieved all our milestones," Lt. Col. Steven Anderson, deputy commander of the 388th Maintenance Group, told reporters last week, according to multiple media reports.
On July 28, officials with the military's F-35 Joint Program Office announced the F-35A had achieved its first air-to-air kill in testing, taking out a drone in a designated training range off the coast of California with an externally mounted AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.
Carlisle has also praised the aircraft in recent days, telling reporters earlier in July that he was ready to deploy the F-35A at the behest of geographic combatant commanders as soon as it achieved IOC.
The declaration comes 13 months after the Marine Corps declared IOC for the F-35B short takeoff and vertical lift [STOVL] variant of the aircraft. The Corps expects to send its first squadron of F-35Bs forward to Japan in January 2017, where it will deploy aboard the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
But the deputy commandant for Marine Corps Aviation, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, told an audience in Washington, D.C., last week that the aircraft was ready to deploy earlier if called upon.
"If we think we need to do that, we're ready to do that," he said.
Officials with Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35, congratulated the Air Force on achieving the milestone in a statement Tuesday.
"With the F-35A, the Air Force now has a fighter combining next-generation radar-evading stealth, supersonic speed, fighter agility and advanced logistical support with the most powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history," company officials said in a statement. "It will provide airmen unprecedented lethality and survivability, a capability they will use to defend America and our allies for decades to come."