The U.S. Air Force may declare its version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ready for initial operations as early as next week.
That's according to multiple news reports citing comments Wednesday from leaders at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where the first squadron of Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35As completed all the required tests for declaring the aircraft ready for initial operational capability, or IOC.
"We have achieved all our milestones," Lt. Col. Steven Anderson, deputy commander of the 388th Maintenance Group, told reporters during a conference call, according to articles by Air Force Magazine and Defense News.
Officials are expected to make a formal declaration of the acquisition milestone next week at the Pentagon, according to the reports.
The requirements for initial operations call for 12 to 24 aircraft capable of performing basic close-air support, interdiction and limited suppression of enemy air defenses in a contested environment and operating from a deployed location, the Air Force has said.
The Marine Corps last year announced its version of the stealth fifth-generation fighter, the short takeoff and vertical landing variant known as the F-35B, was ready for operations. That variant wowed crowds earlier this month with its hover and aerial demonstration at the Farnborough International Airshow outside London (see our footage from the show below).
The Navy is expected to follow suit in late 2018 with its version of the aircraft, the F-35C, designed for aircraft carriers.
The Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons acquisition program, estimated to cost $379 billion for a total of 2,457 aircraft and engines for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.