The U.S. Air Force has declared initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35A Lightning II. A squadron of 12 aircraft at Hill AFB is theoretically available for deployment worldwide, to conduct close air support, interdiction and “limited” S/DEAD (suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses) missions. But in a media briefing at the Pentagon to mark the occasion, Air Combat Command (ACC) commander Gen. Hawk Carlisle cautioned that various capabilities are still awaited.
They include the Block 3F software that adds external weapons. Therefore, although Carlisle said the F-35A could now join the aircraft striking ISIS targets in the Middle East, its utility would appear limited in that non-contested airspace environment for the time being. Instead, Carlisle predicted deployments to the European and Pacific theaters within 18 months.
The F-35A “can go where our legacy aircraft cannot,” Carlisle noted. USAF chief of staff Gen David Goldfein also stressed the aircraft’s ability to “strike well-defended targets.” Lockheed Martin F-35 program manager Jeff Babione said that “the Air Force now has a fighter combining next-generation radar-evading stealth, supersonic speed, fighter agility and advanced logistical support with the most powerful integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history.”
The U.S. Marine Corps declared IOC for their first F-35B squadron one year ago. “The roads leading to IOC for both services were not easy, and these accomplishments are tangible testaments to the positive change happening in the F-35 program,” said Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer. Some 180 F-35s have now been delivered. However, the formal Operational Test and Evaluation of the Lightning II is not scheduled to start until August 2017, after completion of the jet’s System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase.
The F-35A is replacing F-15C/Ds at Hill AFB, where a second squadron will be formed. Reservists from a co-located wing will also fly and maintain these aircraft. The Air Force previously formed two squadrons at Luke AFB for training, as well as units for development, test and evaluation at Edwards, Eglin and Nellis AFBs. A total of 1,763 F-35As are due to be received by the USAF.