U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General Joseph Dunford has declared an initial squadron of 10 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35B fighter jets ready for combat, marking a key milestone for the Pentagon's biggest weapons program, the Pentagon said Friday.
The decision makes the Marines the first U.S. military service to declare an "initial operational capability" for the stealth supersonic F-35 fighter under the arms program that first kicked off in 2001. Although the official price tag for the program is $391 billion, recent reports have estimated that the total cost to the Pentagon will be closer to $1.4 trillion, making it the most expensive weapons program in American history.
"It is an incredibly advanced aircraft, arguably the most advanced in the world," Peter W. Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation and co-author of the recent book Ghost Fleet, told Al Jazeera over email. "It is also incredibly expensive, arguably the most expensive weapons program in all of human history."
Early technical challenges delayed the Marines' move by three years from its original target. But U.S. officials say the F-35 program has been meeting its schedule and lowering costs for the past five years.
Yet questions remain about the military's investment. The online publication War is Boring reported this week it had obtained a leaked report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter authored by a test pilot, who described the F-35 as slow-moving, cumbersome and difficult to maneuver.
Singer also noted that the F-35 program "has been hacked at least three times" and that most of its computer chips are manufactured in China and Taiwan, potentially leaving the plane vulnerable to computer viruses or backdoors granting Chinese hackers access to the jet's systems.
Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lieutenant General Jon Davis said the squadron met all the requirements for the declaration during a recent operational readiness review. But he called for vigilance to ensure sufficient training and spare parts were available for sustained combat operations.
Davis said he also hoped to boost the new planes' readiness rate beyond the current fleet average of 70 to 75 percent.
The Marine Corps plans to send the first squadron of F-35B jets to Iwakuni, Japan, in January 2017, but Friday's declaration means they could respond to a crisis anywhere in the world.
Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall and other officials underscored the need to continue driving down the price of the new jets, and wrap up work on new software needed to equip them with more weapons and sensors.
Davis told reporters the jets did well during the recent review, both in targeting and "killing" enemy aircraft and providing close air support for troops on the ground.
He said pilots were even able to carry out an armed reconnaissance mission in a "very high threat" environment to which older fourth-generation fighter jets like the Boeing Co F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier had not been subjected.
The Marine Corps opted to start using the F-35B jets with an early version of software called Block 2B. Software still being tested will allow the warplanes to carry more weapons and integrate full night-vision capability.
Admiral John Richardson, President Barack Obama's nominee for chief of naval operations, told lawmakers Thursday that he would take a hard look at the Navy's plans to buy 340 F-35C-model fighter jets, which have longer wings and can land on aircraft carriers.
Al Jazeera and Reuters