F-35 Fighter Jets Are Finally Combat Ready, Says Air Force

August 3, 2016 Updated: August 3, 2016

The F-35, the much-maligned fighter jet in development for the past 15 years, is finally combat ready, the Air Force has announced.

A version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the F-35A Lightning—has reached the Air Force’s initial operating capability (IOC). The term is often used by the U.S. government or military to describe a state achieved when a capability is available at its minimum deployable form.

“I am proud to announce this powerful new weapons system has achieved initial combat capability,” Commander of Air Combat Command, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, said in a statement. “The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory because it can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield.”

The entire program cost $379 billion, and is the Pentagon’s largest weapons project.

“The U.S. Air Force decision to make the 15 F-35As at Hill Air Force Base combat ready sends a simple and powerful message to America’s friends and foes alike—the F-35 can do its mission,” F-35 Program Executive Officer Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan said in a statement.

In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Carlisle said the F-35A still needs work, but there have been significant improvements to the aircraft from its early days of development. He said the F-35A’s electronic warfare, stealth, and sensors are needed more than ever.

“Given the national security strategy, we need it,” he told Defense News. “You look at the potential adversaries out there, or the potential environments where we have to operate this airplane, the attributes that the F-35 brings—the ability to penetrate defensive airspace, the ability to deliver precision munitions with a sensor suite that fuses data from multiple information sources—is something our nation needs.”

Officials have said the plane will give American forces the ability to detect adversarial aircraft and other threats beyond the current means. The Air Force plans on buying 1,763 F-35As in the coming years.

Sen. John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted the F-35A’s bumpy progress, describing the current stage as an “important milestone” in the history of the program, launched in 2001.

“But for the most expensive weapons system in history, the road ahead remains long,” he said in a statement. “The Senate Armed Services Committee will continue to exercise rigorous oversight of the Joint Strike Fighter program’s long-delayed System Development and Demonstration phase as well as the start of the operational test and evaluation phase.”

The next steps, he added, are crucial in determining if the F-35A can replace or supplement the current crop of U.S. military fighter planes.