After years of ambiguity on when the U.S. services would introduce their F-35 variants into service, they are finally acknowledging firm plans.
The ambiguity was driven largely by repeated program restructurings that made availability of the aircraft a moving target for the services. Now, however, they have been forced by Congress to declare a path forward. This not only allows for overseers to better craft retirement plans for legacy aircraft, but it also puts the pressure on for Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor, to deliver the aircraft and software as planned.
Below are the dates for the services.
U.S. Marine Corps: December 2015 (with 2B software capability)
U.S. Air Force: December 2016 (with 3I software capability)
U.S. Navy: February 2019 (with 3F software capability)
USMC and USAF officials stress that the IOC dates are just that -- an initial capability. Thus, they are willing to accept the limited engagement envelope and weapons package of the 2B/3I with a growth plan to introducing the 3F software, which provides far more extensive multi-role capability, into the fleet with a full operational capability.
This strategy is likely to generate criticism from F-35 critics, who point out that the price of the aircraft -- at just over $100 million for the A variant in the latest lot -- calls for a far greater capability. And, they note, the aircraft continues to be later than promised.
The Navy, by contrast, is willing to wait for a more robust capability before placing the F-35C aircraft carrier variant onto decks in the fleet. The service has this luxury, in part, because it has invested in a hedge buy of F/A-18E/Fs while awaiting the Joint Strike Fighter.
Here is the services' report to Congress on IOC dates: F-35 Initial Operational Capability (pdf)Read our AvWeek article: USAF Accepts Limited Capability With 2016 F-35 IOC