The U.S. military may deploy the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) before the tri-service fighter is formally declared Initial Operational Capable (IOC), top uniformed officials told Congress on May 24.
While the U.S. Marine Corps has always maintained that it would declare IOC with interim Block 2B software, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy require that the aircraft be fielded with Block 3 software before the jet is formally declared operational. However, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, leaders from both services said they would consider deploying the fifth-generation stealth fighter into combat zones with interim Block 2B software provided that there were no safety concerns.
The Navy’s director of warfare integration, Rear Adm. David Philman, who was also testifying, concurred.
“I don’t see any reason we wouldn’t be able to be told to go into theater, assuming all the safety considerations have been taken care of,” he said.
Both the Navy and the Air Force would have some number of the aircraft prior to any IOC date, but the specifics of how many planes would be available is not yet known.
“We will have a number, probably on the order of a 100, airplanes delivered to operational units before we declare Initial Operational Capability,” Carlisle said. “Clearly, although we may not declare IOC, we’ll be training, we’ll be doing the tactics, training and procedures with the Block 2.”
The maintenance and logistical systems would also be built during that period, he said.
Philman said the Navy would have some aircraft available but not as many as the Air Force.
Marine Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, that service’s deputy commandant for aviation, who was testifying alongside Carlisle and Philman, said that his service still plans to declare IOC with the interim Block 2B software and would have about 50 F-35s available near that time. He said IOC for the Marines is now estimated to fall between 2014 and 2015, which is a two-year slip.
Even with the interim software, the F-35 would be vastly more capable than existing warplanes, they said.
“There is a lot of capability even in the Block 2 airplanes that look very impressive,” Carlisle said.
However, the Air Force and the Navy will both insist upon Block 3 hardware and software for their formal IOC declarations, both Carlisle and Philman said.
Insisting on the Block 3 configuration allows the Pentagon to keep the pressure on Lockheed Martin, the contractor that builds the F-35.
“I’ll be perfectly frank: In a lot of cases, if you delay an IOC, you can maintain pressure on a contractor,” Carlisle said.
IOC for the Air Force and Navy, like the Marines, will slip by about two years from 2016, Carlisle and Philman said. None of the three services has set a fixed IOC date, but Philman said the 2016 date is no longer valid.