US Marines declare F-35 fighter jet ‘ready for combat’

© Randy Gon
The head of the US Marine Corps confirmed that 10 of its often-problematic F-35B fighter jets are ready for combat. The branch’s own model can take off from warships and aircraft carriers, and land like a helicopter.

The announcement on Friday marks a key milestone for the Department of Defense’s biggest weapons program, said the Pentagon. The program has cost nearly $400 billion and was first kicked off 15 years ago.

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The announcement also makes the Marines the first military branch to declare an “initial operational capability” for the stealth F-35 fighter, which is capable of flying at supersonic speed. The branch plans to buy 420 of the F-35B-model and C-model jets.

The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our nation with its first fifth-generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win,” Marine Commandant General Joseph Dunford, confirmed this week by the Senate to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement.

The Marine Corps plans to send the first squadron of F-35B jets to Iwakuni, Japan, in January 2017, but Friday’s announcement means the jets could respond to a crisis anywhere in the world.

The 10 stealth fighters have experienced numerous cost overruns and delays over the years.

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The announcement comes just days after Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the F-35 jet has “taken us too long [and] has cost us way more money than we ever imagined possible.”

James also said there were still challenges left to overcome. “I would sum it up in a word – software,” she said.

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Earlier this year, for example, the software system intended to identify maintenance issues was found to give false-positive readings 80 percent of the time. The Marine Corps will be using its ready F-35B jets with an early-version of software called Block 2B. Software is still being tested that will allow the warplanes to carry more weapons and integrate full night-vision capability.

Meanwhile, Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall and other officials underscored the need to continue driving down the price of the new jets. The jet’s developer, Lockheed Martin, has designed three models. Each F-35B costs around $134 million. The A- and C- models cost $108 million and $129 million, respectively.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) called the Marine Corps’ move an “important milestone,” but reiterated his concerns about the capability and reliability of the jets.

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“The Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive weapons system in history, and we must learn the lessons of past failures to ensure American aviators can safely and effectively perform their missions, and that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently,” he said in a statement, according to a report by Reuters.

The Navy has plans to buy 340 of the F-35C-model fighter jets, which have longer wings and can land on aircraft carriers.