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Pentagon: F-35 Operational Flights to Start in 2015

The Marine Corps will begin operational flights of the F-35 fighter jet in 2015, followed by the Air Force in 2016 and the Navy in 2019, according to newly released information from the Defense Department.

The services were required to notify Congress by June 1 of the dates they expect to have enough aircraft in the fleet to support missions, a milestone known in military parlance as initial operating capability, or IOC.

The Marine Corps version of the jet, called the F-35B, which can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane, will reach the milestone by December 2015; the Air Force's by December 2016 and the Navy's by February 2019, according to information provided by Marine Capt. Richard Ulsh, a spokesman for the service at the Pentagon.

"Our nation expects us to make informed decisions about developing and employing the most effective military capabilities to support our national security strategy," Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle, the Marine Corps' deputy commandant of aviation, said in a statement. "The F-35 is the best hedge against the ever-evolving and unknown threats posed by potential adversaries."

The schedule has been delayed by about three years due in part to problems developing the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made aircraft and its software.

The Marine Corps initially expected its version of the F-35 to be ready for operations in December 2012, according to program documents. The Navy and Air Force originally put the date at April 2016. The services were reluctant to update the timeline until getting a better sense of the aircraft’s performance in operational tests.

The notification was required by Congress and delivered to lawmakers on May 31, according to Ulsh.

It comes a week after the Defense Department released a report showing that the estimated cost to develop and build 2,457 F-35 Lighting IIs — the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program, known as the Joint Strike Fighter — declined 1 percent in the past year to $391 billion due in part to decreased labor rates.

Fifty-two planes have been delivered to the military through 2012, including 14 test and 38 production aircraft, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The single-engine jet is designed to replace such aircraft as the F-16, A-10, F/A-18 and AV-8B.

The Pentagon next year plans to spend $8.4 billion to buy 29 F-35s, including 19 for the Air Force, six for the Marine Corps and four for the Navy, according to the budget request for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.

While lawmakers are drafting legislation that would fully fund the Pentagon’s request, they’re concerned that the slow pace of software development may delay the most lethal version of the aircraft.

The House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee this month drafted legislation that would order the Pentagon to establish an independent team of subject matter experts to review software development for the program and submit a report to lawmakers by March 3, 2014.

The Air Force plans to start flying its version of the aircraft, or F-35A, in 2016 rather than the following year as previously planned by using software similar to the Marine Corps’ jump-jet variant. That installment, known as Block 2B, isn't as lethal as the full software package.

The full package, known as Block 3F, is designed to support a suite of internal and external weapons, including the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, laser-guided Paveway II bomb, Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and infrared Sidewinder missile.

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