First F-35 squadron ready for deployment

First F-35 squadron ready for deployment

The Marine Corps announced Friday that the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter has reached initial operational capability with a squadron of 10 fighters "ready for world-wide deployment."  

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), based in Yuma, Ariz., is the military's first operational F-35 squadron.

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"I am pleased to announce that VMFA-121 has achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in the F-35B, as defined by requirements outlined in the June 2014 Joint Report to Congressional Defense Committees," Gen. Joseph Dunford, commandant of the Marine Corps, said in an announcement from the service.

"It is capable of conducting Close Air Support, Offensive and Defensive Counter Air, Air Interdiction, Assault Support Escort and Armed Reconnaissance as part of a Marine Air Ground Task Force, or in support of the Joint Force," Dunford said. 

Frank Kendall, the Defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, also heralded the "significant milestone" in a statement. 

"This achievement is a testament to the efforts of the F-35 joint program office and industry team, as well as the hard work and support from the Marine Corps," he said. 

The announcement marks the first operational squadron of the fifth generation stealth fighter, made by Lockheed Martin, which has run nearly a decade behind schedule and billions of dollars above budget. It has also been beset by technical problems during its development. 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynImpeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial MORE (R-Texas) welcomed the announcement.

“After many years of hard work, I’m pleased to see the F-35 pass this critical milestone and move one step closer to being deployed across the globe in support of the men and women of our armed forces. I am proud that this multi-role aircraft will serve as the backbone of our military’s fighter fleets for decades to come," he said in a statement. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainConservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters Donald Trump's 2020 election economic gamble MORE (R-Ariz.) acknowledged the "important milestone" in the Joint Strike Fighter program, but said he remains concerned about the capability and reliability of the aircraft. 

"As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I will continue to do everything I can to make sure that our military improves aircraft reliability and maintenance, software development and integration, and weapons capabilities and integration," said McCain, a retired naval aviator.  

“The Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive weapons system in history, and we must learn the lessons of past failures to ensure American aviators can safely and effectively perform their missions, and that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently. We owe them nothing less," he added. 

The squadron is expected to replace the Marine Corps' AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet, and the EA-6B Prowler. The Air Force version is envisioned to replace its A-10 for close air support. 

The statement said Dunford has "full confidence" in the F-35B's ability to support Marines in combat, predicated on years of testing and operational flying. 

"The F-35B's ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our Nation with its first 5th generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win," he said.  

The Marine Corps has more than 50 F-35B pilots and about 500 maintainers, the statement said.  

Another squadron is slated to transition to a F-35B squadron next fiscal year, it said.