Is it possible that the much maligned, way over budget, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be ready for big-time action soon?
Derided as the poster-child for troubled Pentagon programs far behind schedule, the F-35 was conceived 16 years ago as a replacement for multiple jetfighters used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. After running several years behind schedule, the Marines announced that that last year that their version was ready to become operational.
Now comes word that the Air Force’s F-35 Lightning II could be ready for deployment against ISIS in Iraq and Syria soon if called upon by President Obama or his successor, and that it will be sent around the world for heavy-duty action.
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That word came last week from Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, who met with reporters on Capitol Hill, according to the Air Force Times. “The minute I declare initial operational capability, if the combatant commander called me up and said, 'We need F-35s,' I would send them,” Carlisle said.
This is exciting and important news for the Pentagon, the Obama administration and its allies in the Middle East who have recently achieved important battlefield successes over ISIS by essentially shrinking the terrorists’ brutal footprint in Iraq and Syria.
Thanks to a combination of U.S.-led drone and jet fighter attacks and tactical successes of the Iraqi military, the Islamic State has lost 45 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and 20 percent of areas it controlled in Syria, according to military estimates. ISIS has retaliated with a series of attacks on mostly civilian targets in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. But there have been reports of low morale among the terrorists and increased defections from ISIS, as the U.S. and allied forces step up the air attacks.
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Now the highly advanced but long-delayed Air Force version of the new generation of F-35s appears on the verge of being deployed in the Middle East to raise the ante in the attacks on ISIS. According to the Air Force Times report, the F-35 is poised to achieve initial operating capability (or IOC) soon – meaning that the fighter will be in its minimum usefully deployable form.
Defense industry reports say the plane probably won’t reach full operational capability until the end of 2016, primarily because of problems with complex on board software. Yet Carlisle was optimistic that the fixes could be made fairly soon and that the jet fighter – which costs an estimated $100 million each – is practically ready to go.
“We’re not quite ready yet, but things are going very well in the program,” he told reporters. “I see it at the front end of that August to December window.”
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There was a time when Pentagon planners thought the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be in full production by now, but that probably will take at least another three years to achieve. Defense One reported in May that the Lockheed Martin manufacturing plant in Texas was gearing up to produce 17 Joint Strike Fighters a month by 2019 – or quadruple the present rates.
Until now, the F-35 has cost the federal government nearly $400 billion, making it the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history. The total cost could reach as much as $1.5 trillion over a half century.