The first squadron of F-35B jets has been approved for worldwide deployment according to an announcement by the US Department of Defense.
In total, 10 of the new jets will be employed by the US Marine Corps for active service missions.
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, or VMFA-121, based in Yuma, Arizona, will be the first squadron to become operational with an F-35 variant.
The Marines are the first branch of the US military to approve the aircraft with what it calls ‘initial operational capability’. To reach this level, the craft had to be tested in a number of real-world situations and be able to prove its merit.
“The decision was made following a thorough operational readiness inspection, which assessed the Marine Corps’ ability to employ this complex weapon system in an operational environment,” Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall said in a statement.
“[Initial operational capability] marks a significant milestone in the continued evolution of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program,” he continued.
Program delays and cost overruns
The US military is also using this announcement to assert that the F-35B production is on track.
“…the F-35 program is on track to deliver essential 5th generation warfighting capabilities to our U.S. services and international partners,” Kendall claimed.
Despite this, the first F-35B jets were actually planned to reach service in 2012, and have in the years since suffered a number of crippling delays.
In addition, cost overruns have now made the F-35 project the most expensive military system in the history of the US. Currently, the program has cost the US government over $400 bn, a price tag which is expected to balloon to around $1 trillion over the lifespan of the craft.
Part of the reason the craft is so expensive, is that it is planned to replace a wide range of existing craft used by all arms of the US Armed Forces. These include the F/A-18 Hornet, and the EA-6B Prowler which will be replaced by the F-35A, and the AV-8B Harrier to be replaced by the F-35B variant.
The US hopes to recoup some of the costs of the F-35 program by selling the jets to its allies. Already countries like Australia, the UK and Israel have announced plans to buy billions of dollars worth of the new jets.