A key U.S. ally in the Pacific says its premiere stealth fighter is ready for combat.
The Royal Australian Air Force on Monday declared that its F-35A Joint Strike Fighter has achieved initial operational capability, or IOC, making it the seventh country flying the jet to achieve that milestone.
"This IOC ushers in a new era of Australian air power that gives the RAAF transformational and game-changing capabilities," Joe North, Lockheed Martin Australia chief executive, said in a company release.
Australia currently has 33 F-35As; RAAF crews have surpassed “more than 8,780 flight hours to date, with more than 45 pilots and 600 maintainers supporting the Fleet,” the release said.
More than 600 aircraft are operating from nearly 30 locations across the globe, which include military bases and ships, Lockheed Martin officials said.
Australia joins the U.S. Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy; Israeli Air Force; Royal Norwegian Air Force; Japan Self-Defense Air Force; Italian Air Force; and Royal Air Force in declaring combat-ready status for the fifth-generation jet.
Lockheed delivered 123 Lightning II aircraft worldwide in 2020: 74 to the U.S., 31 to international partners, and 18 to Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customers.
The company was unable to meet or surpass its previous record-breaking delivery of 134 jets -- which it achieved last year -- due to supplier challenges that arose with the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockheed in May revised its 141-jet delivery benchmark to a range of between 117 to 123, declaring this a more achievable goal.
"Achieving this milestone amid a global pandemic is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the team and their commitment to our customers' missions," Bill Brotherton, acting vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, said in a separate release Monday.
The program was founded by nine partner nations: the U.S., the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada -- though Canada has not committed to buying the aircraft. FMS customers include Israel, Japan, South Korea and Belgium.
However, the Defense Department officially booted Turkey from the program in July 2019 because of its purchase of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air-missile systems. Despite Turkey's formal removal from the F-35 program, the Pentagon has provided a gradual acquisition off-ramp for the country.
DoD officials originally cited hopes of finding U.S. suppliers this year to make the parts now made by Turkey, but it’s likely a full break with Turkey will not occur until 2022, according to Bloomberg News.
Following Turkey’s removal, a group of Republican senators that August urged the Pentagon to expand the U.S.-led F-35 program with additional foreign sales to create a stronger coalition of allies. Weeks later, the U.S. opened the door to Poland as a potential F-35 FMS customer.
Poland was approved to receive 32 Lockheed Martin-made F-35A aircraft with support and associated equipment, for an estimated cost of $6.5 billion in September 2019.
Earlier this year, the U.S. government greenlit the sale of 12 F-35B short-takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) jets and related equipment to Singapore for approximately $2.75 billion -- potentially expanding the fifth-generation program in the Pacific.
Singapore would join the United Kingdom and the U.S. Marine Corps in flying the F-35B. Italy, which has a single B-variant operated by its Navy, has committed to buying more; Japan has also committed to buying STOVL jets.
In November, the Trump administration notified lawmakers it plans to sell 50 stealth F-35 fighters to the United Arab Emirates as part of a massive $23.4 billion arms package that also includes drones and other weapons.
The move has been met with bipartisan opposition, with lawmakers fearing the sale could instigate an arms race between key countries in the Middle East, particularly Israel, which already flies the F-35 and was the first nation to use the jet in combat.
Senators blocked two resolutions to prohibit the sale earlier this month, according to Bloomberg.
The U.S. also submitted the F-35 as a bidding option for Switzerland’s New Fighter Aircraft (NFA) competition in November.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.