The U.S. Air Force F-35A is ready for war. More or less.

On Aug. 2, 2016, the F-35A was declared “combat ready” by Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command. “A historic and monumental day for the program” according to Lockheed Martin; just an “Initial” capability, according to many others.

About 15 years after Lockheed Martin was awarded with a contract to develop the Joint Strike Fighter, currently known as the F-35 Lightning II, the fifth generation stealth plane, has eventually achieved the IOC (Initial Operational Capability) with the U.S. Air Force.

The first squadron declared to be operational is the 34th Fighter Squadron based at Hill AFB in Utah that was required to have at least 12 airframes ready for deployment operating as a basic close air support and air interdiction and limited SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) platform.

Along with other personnel, maintenance and support requirements the Air Force squadron was also expected to ensure that enough pilots are combat ready, and pass proper examination: as of Jul. 27, 21 pilots and 12 F-35A airframes could be deployed in theater.

Which one?

Well, for the moment, one of those featuring low-lethality threats or where the limited, initial capabilities of the F-35 are considered enough to counter the enemy air defenses: although the JSF has improved a lot through the years, slowly solving the long series of issues the program has experienced since the beginning (some of those still being solved), it is still far from being the aircraft advertised in the beginning.

For sure, as claimed by the head of the Air Combat Command, General Herbert “Hawk” Calisle, its stealth properties, along with the net-centric battlefield capabilities and electronic countermeasures, are the elements which are required in order to face the challenges of the dynamically changing environment of the contemporary battlefield, especially when one considers the enemy weapons systems the F-35 would be required to face.

For the type of threat faced by the U.S. combat planes in the current theaters an IOC F-35 could be more than enough to well perform in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, but a “real” air war against an enemy who shoots back would require an aircraft with the ability to conduct Anti-Access Offensive Counter Air,  full SEAD/DEAD (Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses) missions and something more that the U.S. Air Force Lightning II is simply not ready to perform.

So, does this IOC matter? Yes and no.

Surely, after cost overruns, delays, issues of various types, it marks another achievement for the USAF F-35A but, as widely reported for instance by War Is Boring, the initial IOC requirements have been watered down to meet the deadlines.

F-35 IOC timeline

As Defense News notes, the main concern for the Air Force is the 3F software suite of the jet, facing some instability issues, which is expected to be patched up throughout the year 2017, giving the aircraft a capacity to use new armament such as the SDBs (Small-Diameter Bombs), alongside the interface changes.

Also, Lockheed’s Autonomic Logistics Information System, ALIS 2.0.2 – an update of the logistics/maintenance suite – is not expected to be ready by the end of October, even though the Hill AFB personnel stated that the ALIS issue was not a “limiting factor”.

So, in spite of the media hype following the IOC, coherent with the usual PR support that surrounds every F-35 achievement, there is still much room for improvements, development and true operational testing.

The F-35 is now going to take a path of operational deployments, in clearly defined stages. First the Red Flags, and then – inevitably – the jet is going to become a part of the “Theater Security Packages” sent to Europe and Asia.

Some claims also emerged that within 18 months Lightning II would be stationed at RAF Lakenheath (but not permanently – this would happen around 2021, and the jets would rather complement than replace the F-15s stationed there), which would also mean that Mach Loop low-level operations could also be expected within that period, as well as some “hop-like” deployments around the continental Europe.

The prospects of development assume that Hill AFB is going to become a home for two more operational F-35 squadrons, with a view of Burlington Air National Guard Base in Vermont becoming the second operational base — and the first Air National Guard base — to host the F-35.

Burlington is going to use 18 F-35 airframes replacing its F-16 jets. Next up, 24 F-35 jets would be stationed in Alaska, around 2020 – at the Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, as Defense News reports, forming an added capability, not replacing any assets stationed in the northernmost US state.

Three more bases are to be selected soon, with fifth and sixth belonging to the ANG, while the seventh one would be established in one of the bases that currently host F-16s or A-10s: Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida, Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona or Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth in Texas.

Summing up, the much troubled and costly F-35 has grown: probably a bit more than the detractors want you to believe and probably less than both LM, the U.S. armed forces and other operators want you to believe. Hence, there is still much work to do, but we’re probably on a good path.

Written with Jacek Siminski

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About David Cenciotti 4467 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.

24 Comments

  1. I feel sorry for those guys that are going to fly this coffin in to combat …

    • Perhaps the best thing is to work on not going into combat in the first place. That however, as we all know, is not profitable!

      • You are absolutely right! Better to spend that money on rebuilding the nation that the corrupt politicians and their masters from the military industrial and financial sector has destroyed then buying this and other military junk, witch is only good for milking the taxpayers money and filling their greedy pockets.

      • From a profitability PoV LockMart’s F35 boondoggle could be classified
        as a stellar success – just sum up all the greenbacks milked in the last
        decades, on taxpayers costs. In any other industry, for such a record
        they would’ve been fired, and gone belly up long ago.
        The strategies honed by major SW “developers” since the late 80ies, with the associated marketing campaigns, releasing unfinished beta versions, as “fully working” products, for the customers to debug, and battle with, then applying a whole process of patching during lifetime- all for the full up front cost of a working product. Then, a few years later, it’s all obsoleted, and with the “next” (read face lift) version, the cycle starts over again.
        When that strategy was applied to the Mil world – F35 is a textbook example – it gave such nice results… Even patches are invoiced.
        The MIIC doesn’t even need a hot shooting war for skyrocketing profits.

    • Well, numerous governments, including Japan, USA, UK, the Netherlands, Norway and so on have acquired something that you are referring to as a ‘coffin’. I am inclined to say that they have a better argument procuring that aircraft and that their choice is more rational and informed, than some opinion of a publicist who considers the aircraft to be a coffin :)

      • Rational, maybe, but more from a political perspective than anything else. As far as I’m aware, most of the ‘competitions’ done were based on existing products versus promises regarding the F-35. It wasn’t hard to make a convincing argument that the F-35 was the best choice… But I highly doubt it was ever about which plane was the best. I’m not saying the F-35 won’t be good, but I do tend to cringe at the mentioning of “procuring” and “rational” in the same sentence.

    • No sir. The other guys going up against the F-35 will be the ones in the flying coffins

      • Mr. Martin sounds perfectly educated to me and seems to have an accurate vision of the corporate and political greed that’s delivered us this generally useless and semi-functional aircraft at the cost of $500 billion dollars to date.

        • Based on what I read on the F-35 in the public domain, Mr Martin does not sound educated to me.

    • Coffin? I had no idea there’s been F-35 crashes which has caused the death of its pilots. Seems like you’re the only one (non-pilot/arm-chair general) that feels sorry because F-35 pilots are very excited about this fighter. They’re excited that they are flying a plane that is more likely to get them home after a combat mission than the legacy fighters they used to fly.

      • Maybe you should just check some facts about this plane, before you call me a troll next time and base your judgement on established facts rather then emotions.

    • “I feel sorry for those guys that are going to fly this coffin in to combat …”

      Let me correct your statement…

      I feel sorry for those guys that have fly against this (F-35) because they’ll be flying a coffin into combat.

  2. The Russians and Chinese have nothing to compare or compete with the F-35. Along with the F-22 overwhelming air dominance has now been achieved (or will be as more units come online). This plane will eclipse all other Western fighters (except for the F-22). Block upgrades will continue to improve the plane’s lethality. I wouldn’t want to face this plane in combat. It is without peer.

  3. Hey Mr.Cenciotti, FYI. All new U.S.A.F. aircraft start off in IOC and rarely do they go off into combat so soon after being declared initial combat capable,so relax this fighter will eventually prove it self just as the F-22 have after its IOC,OVER TEN YEARS AGO. The United States Air Force may make mistakes from time to time like any branch of the U.S. armed services has during it’s lifetime but few people in the world can argue the U.S. has the best air force on earth and if they believe in the F-35 Lightning II capabilities as much as they do,then the public (and arm chair/internet generals) should take that into consideration before offering their “opinions”.

    • As a 5-star “armchair general” (sarc) I’ve yet to see DoD PR put out the press release where they tout the F-22 performing any theater combat mission an Eagle/Super Hornet couldn’t have done at a lesser cost.

  4. The F35 will be fine. I mean seriously what aircraft will it come up against? There will be no direct confrontation against the Russians or Chinese so count out any 4+ gen fighters.

    At most the F35 will shoot down, from range, some monkey model Soviet era Migs in the Middle East or Africa. Then we’ll hear the praises of this aircraft just like we’ve been hearing about the F15s and F16s.

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