The U.S. Air Force says the most expensive weapons system in its history is ready for combat. In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, said the air force version of the F-35 has met all key criteria for reaching initial operational capability. “I am proud to announce this powerful new weapons system has achieved initial combat capability,” Carlisle said. “The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory, because it can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield.”
The Air Force expects to buy 1,763 of the jets, making the service the biggest purchaser of the aircraft. The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing variant and the cheapest of the three variants in production. The low-rate initial production cost of $98 million is expected to fall to $85 million by 2018, when the fighter enters full production.
The single-engine F-35 fighter jet is touted as the future of military aviation. But the Joint Strike Fighter program has drawn sharp criticism after numerous hardware malfunctions and software glitches delayed the aircraft for more than three years and caused its budget to swell some $200 billion over initial estimates. "The program is not doing everything they wanted it to do... But they're at a point now where it is stabilizing and so it is progress," said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Officials say the F-35 will give the U.S. military the ability to detect enemy aircraft and other threats far beyond current ranges, allowing the jets to strike targets and disappear long before they are detected. "With the F-35A, 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 and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history," company officials said in a statement. "It will provide airmen unprecedented lethality and survivability, a capability they will use to defend America and our allies for decades to come."