The F-35A will deploy around the world much sooner than the Air Force's other fifth-generation fighter did after achieving initial operational capability, the commander of Air Combat Command said Tuesday.
Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, who announced to reporters at the Pentagon that the F-35A had achieved the IOC milestone, said while the F-22 Raptor did not see its first operational deployment until 2014, a decade after it reached IOC, the F-35 would not face the same obstacles.
"On a couple of occasions, we were going to send [the F-22] to different theaters and we didn't because there were at least a group of people who thought that it was too provocative to send," he said. "It was less about us not being able to or at least not wanting to; it was more about the message. … We didn't send it to the Middle East, frankly because it was considered to be a provocative move to send the only 5th-generation fighter in the world to that environment."
Carlisle doubled down on previous comments that he would be willing to deploy the F-35A to the Middle East immediately if called to do so by geographic combatant commanders. While the aircraft has not yet reached advanced close-air support capability, he said it was ready to complete combat missions, including pre-planned strikes, on-call air interdiction, and air superiority missions.
While the aircraft was not currently part of the global force management process in which units are scheduled to rotate through the Middle East, "it is scheduled down the road," he said.
He also said he expected to deploy the F-35A in the European and Pacific theaters within the next 18 months.
"You'll see it out there much quicker. You'll see it operating with our friends and partners. We're already seeing that occur," he said, noting that the aircraft had appeared at the Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford, England, in July.
Asked if he thought deploying the F-35 in the European theater near Russia would be provocative, Carlisle said he didn't, adding that he hadn't thought an F-22 deployment to the Middle East was provocative either.
"I think it sends a good signal," he said, noting that the deployment of F-22s to Europe last fall had been a success. "There's great messaging that goes with that, great capabilities with that. I think it reassures friends and allies and it is a deterrent."
The Air Force is expected to buy 1,763 F-35As in all. Carlisle said he hoped to acquire at least 60 of the aircraft per year, and optimally 80.