The U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that the long-awaited F-35A Lightning II is officially combat ready, adding a decisive new weapon to the Air Force’s arsenal at a crucial time for U.S. national security.
Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of the Air Combat Command, announced the F-35A’s has reached initial operational capability (IOC) during a Tuesday briefing with reporters at the Pentagon. IOC means the Air Force has 12 working aircraft as well as the pilots, maintainers and support equipment necessary to engage in combat operations. The F-35A can now participate in a diverse array of missions, including interdiction, close air support (CAS) and the attacking enemy air defenses.
One of the most important and unique aspects of the F-35A’s road to operational status involved software, as opposed to mechanics or weaponry. F-35A’s will have a new software known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). ALIS gives the aircraft the ability to “plan, maintain and sustain” its own systems, according to an Air Force handout provided to The DCNF. Version 2.02 of the software will improve upon the advanced software system, increasing efficiency and decreasing workload.
The F-35A is the Air Force’s variant of the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. It will primarily function as a multi-role fighter, capable of engaging in missions that range from intercepting enemy aircraft to providing bombing support to troops on the ground. The F-35A is extremely stealthy, so much so that anti-aircraft weapons could not even detect it during recent training missions at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. The aircraft is capable of reaching speeds of around 1,200 miles per hour, and has a range of 1,350 miles. It can carry munitions both inside the body and externally.
Despite the IOC announcement, there are still some significant kinks to be worked out in the F-35A. One of the stranger issues involves the aircraft’s faulty ejection seat, which currently prevents lighter pilots from flying the aircraft. Carlisle assured reporters that the Air Force has made “very good progress” with the seat’s manufacturer towards finding a solution. He noted the Air Force has also explored the possibility of retrofitting the aircraft.
Another crucial problem does not involve the F-35A’s capabilities, but instead revolves around purchasing enough of aircraft to replace older legacy platforms currently in the Air Force fleet. With each F-35A selling for $148 million, nearly ten times the cost of an older F-16, buying more units will be an extremely expensive endeavor. Amazingly, the F-35A is actually the cheapest F-35 variant. The Navy’s F-35C costs an estimated $337 million, while the Marine Corps version (F-35B) goes for $251 million, making the F-35 program the most expensive weapons program ever.
“I need more, faster,” said Carlisle during the briefing. “My concern is buy rate. I would like to see the number go to at least 60 … 80 would be optimal.”
One way the Air Force is addressing the numbers issue is the how they fit, or “code,” training aircraft. Unlike the the F-22, the Air Force’s last fifth-generation fighter, F-35A training aircraft will be “combat coded” so that they can be called up for action in case of any “contingency.”
The question on many minds in both the press and military is simple: when will the F-35A be deployed in combat?
The answer is, as with many things in the Department of Defense, complicated. Carlisle noted the Air Force is currently facing huge demands, and those demands are spread across various theaters, including the Middle East, Asian Pacific and Europe. In turn, he explained that the Air Force is currently determining basing locations for the aircraft in the near future.
Carlisle noted that “it would be very easy” to insert the F-35A into certain current combat situations in the Middle East, if needed. He said that should a commander of one of the nine U.S. combatant commands spread across the globe ask for F-35As, he would be willing to provide them.
“Right now, the F-35, in a rotational move into the Middle East, is not happening in the next, in the near term,” said Carlisle. “It is scheduled further down the road, but again … if a combatant commander needed it sooner, they would ask for it, and we would send it.”
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