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Marine Corps Announces F-35B Fighter Jet Ready for Initial Operations


The U.S. Marine Corps on Friday announced the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is ready to fly initial operations.

After notifying lawmakers in Congress, Commandant Joseph Dunford said he “was pleased to announce” that the F-35B jump-jet version of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made plane achieved the historic milestone, known as initial operational capability in military parlance.

According to the statement, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron-121, based in Yuma, Arizona, has become "the first squadron in military history to become operational with an F-35 variant" and stands "ready for worldwide deployment" with 10 of the aircraft.

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.

The news came nearly 14 years after Lockheed, the world’s largest defense contractor, won the contract to develop the stealthy fifth-generation fighter. The cost of the program has since doubled and its development and production schedules have since been delayed.

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.

Configured with a version of software known as Block 2B, the F-35Bs can conduct such missions as “close air support, offensive and defensive counter air, air interdiction, assault support escort and armed reconnaissance as part of a Marine Air Ground Task Force, or in support of the Joint Force,” Dunford said.

For the Marine Corps, the F-35B will eventually replace aging fleets of aircraft, including the AV-8B harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler.

Earlier in the week, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the service's deputy commandant for aviation, acknowledged that Marines will have to "make do" with a less lethal version of the airplane. For example, the early operational F-35Bs won’t include a new night-vision helmet, Small Diameter Bomb II or GAU-22/A four-barrel 25mm Gatling gun -- or the ability to stream video or simultaneously fuse sensor data from four aircraft.

"I would have liked to have had the full four-ship fusion and the NVG full compatibility of the helmet, but I'll wait on that," he said at the time. Many of the weapons improvements will be included as part of a future software upgrade, known as 3F, which is slated for fully operational F-35Bs in late 2017.

On Friday, Davis repeated his warning that funding for spare parts must be preserved in order to ensure the F-35B is ready to fly missions around the world. The F-35 is designed to have a mission capable rate of about 74 percent, though the current figure is closer to 60–65 percent and he has said he wants it to be upwards of 80 percent.

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