The U.S. Marine Corps is expected to announce the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is ready to fly initial operations in the near future, a general said.
During a conference call with reporters on Monday afternoon, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the service's deputy commandant for aviation, said the F-35B jump-jet version of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made plane may "soon" reach the milestone, known as initial operational capability in military parlance.
"I would say soon, but … I'm not going to rush Gen. Dunford," Davis said, referring to Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, in response to a reporter who asked when a decision might be made. "Bottom line, he and I talked and he's a busy guy and he's working his way through that right now. But I'll tell you, we met all of our IOC criteria."
The F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons acquisition program, estimated to cost $391 billion to purchase 2,457 aircraft for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. The Corps plans to begin operational flights this year -- albeit with a less lethal version of the aircraft -- followed by the Air Force in 2016 and the Navy in 2019.
'IMPRESSIVE' KILL RATES
The Corps plans to buy a total of 420 of the fifth-generation stealth fighters, including 353 F-35Bs, the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) versions that fly like a plane and land like a helicopter, and 67 F-35C variants designed for use aboard aircraft carriers, the general said.
During a recent operational readiness inspection, the aircraft -- armed with the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition and laser-guided GBU-12 Paveway II bombs -- performed well in such missions as armed reconnaissance, interdiction, opposed strike and close air support, Davis said.
"The exchange rates and the kill rates that we had against the adversary aircraft in a multi-mission profile was very, very impressive," he said. "They did very, very well -- great accuracy with the hits."
Indeed, Davis said he was surprised how the planes were able to execute a high-threat scenario for the armed reconnaissance sortie. "We would never put a legacy platform -- an F/A-18 or a Harrier -- in that kind of threat environment, but these guys went and did it," he said.
For example, during the U.S.-led attack against Iraq in 1989, "going after those Scuds [ballistic missiles] in Desert Storm -- that was a high-profile target that we had to address first for strategic regions and if they had been defended by some high-end SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], it would have been probably prohibitive for us to go after them like we did," he said. "Now, you've got a radar and a sensor that would basically allow you to find those things a heck of a lot better and do that in a high-threat environment."
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