May 31 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. military services today set dates for when the first squadrons of Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 fighter jets, from the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program, will be combat-ready.
Congress was notified this morning that the initial short-takeoff and vertical-landing model for the Marine Corps will be ready no later than December 2015. The target for the Air Force’s version of the jet is December 2016, and the date for the Navy model, designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers, is February 2019.
Congress last year directed the services to establish the dates by June 1. When Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed won the contract from Boeing Co. in 2001, the original dates for initial combat-readiness were April 2010 for the Marines, June 2011 for the Air Force and April 2012 for the Navy, according to program documents.
Those dates were abandoned after the program was reorganized several times because of cost growth and technical challenges that have delayed key milestones by years.
The F-35 program’s total projected cost has increased 68 percent since 2001 to $391.2 billion.
Still, setting the marker known in military parlance as “initial operating capability” is a tangible signal to potential international purchasers that the program is making progress in testing.
The Marine Corps has been the most aggressive in touting its plans for an initial operating capability. Officials have said they would like to reach that status by July 2015. The Marine Corps version is the most complex of the three models because it’s designed with a propulsion system that allows the jet to hover and land like a helicopter.
“Our nation expects us to make informed decisions about developing and employing the most effective military capabilities to support our national security strategy,” said Lieutenant General Robert E. Schmidle, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant of aviation, in a statement. “The F-35 is the best hedge against the ever-evolving and unknown threats posed by potential adversaries,”
The Marines will declare a combat-ready squadron when it’s equipped with between 10 and 16 jets and has trained pilots for missions such as close air support of troops.
The Air Force will declare its first squadron ready when it’s equipped with at least 12 aircraft and combat-ready crews while the Navy needs at least 10 aircraft and equivalent crews.
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