The U.S. Marine Corps on Friday declared its version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fight is ready for combat.
Marine Corps Commandant Joseph Dunford said that the F-35B version of the Lockheed Martin-built plane had achieve “initial operational capability.”
The decision marks an important milestone for the roughly $400 billion F-35 effort, which began development in 2001. The effort has been plagued with delays and cost overruns and has become the single most expensive weapons program in U.S. history. The lifetime cost of the F-35 program is expected to exceed a trillion dollars.
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"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," Dunford, who the Senate this week confirmed to be the next Chair of the Joint Chief of staff, said in a statement.
The Marine Corps plans to deploy the first squadron of operational F-35B jets to Iwakuni, Japan, in January 2017.
There was some doubt as to when, or if, Dunford would greenlight the decision. Prior to his confirmation hearing last month, the four-star general indicated the military not be able to afford its plan to buy around 2,440 of the aircraft.
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“Given the evolving defense strategy and the latest Defense Planning Guidance, we are presently taking the newest strategic foundation and analyzing whether 2,443 aircraft is the correct number,” he wrote in response to questions asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee in advance of his testimony.
“Until the analysis is complete, we need to pursue the current scheduled quantity buy to preclude creating an overall near-term tactical fighter shortfall,” he added.
The Marine Corps plans to buy a total of 353 F-35Bs.
The U.S. Air Force hopes to declare its variant, the F-35A, combat ready sometime in 2016, and the Navy plans to follow suit with the F-35C in 2019.