The Pentagon is revealing the initial operational capability (IOC) dates for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) in a new report to the US Congress delivered on 31 May, as required by law.
The US Air Force, the largest US Department of Defense (DOD) customer for the tri-service jet, will declare its F-35A variant operational in 2016. “If the F-35 Integrated Master Schedule (IMS) Version 7 executes according to plan, Air Force F-35A IOC criteria could be met between August 2016 (Objective) and December 2016 (Threshold),” the report says.
The USAF IOC date is a departure from the service’s earlier insistence that it would require the full capabilities of the jet’s final Block 3F configuration to declare IOC, which is expected to complete development in the later part of 2017 according to the Pentagon’s 2012 F-35 selected acquisition report. That means that the USAF plans to declare IOC with either the earlier Block 2B software load or with Block 3i, which is the same configuration rehosted on newer avionics hardware. However, the report does not explicitly state which configuration the USAF will use upon declaring IOC.
The USAF criteria for IOC consists of standing up the first operational F-35A squadron equipped with between 12 and 24 aircraft and with enough train personnel “to conduct basic close air support (CAS), interdiction, and limited suppression and destruction of enemy air defense (SEAD/DEAD) operations in a contested environment.”
However, the USAF does note it needs the full Block 3F capability later. “The criteria stated above will provide sufficient initial combat capability for the threat postulated in 2016,” the report reads. “However, in order to meet the full spectrum of Joint warfighter requirements in future years, the Air Force will require the enhanced lethality and survivability inherent in Blocks 3F and beyond.”
The US Marine Corps, meanwhile, is sticking to its plan to declare IOC with the Block 2B configuration in 2015. “If the F-35 IMS Version 7 executes according to plan, Marine Corps F-35B IOC criteria could be met between July 2015 (Objective) and December 2015 (Threshold),” the report states.
The Marines will declare IOC when the first squadron of between 10 and 16 aircraft is trained and ready “to conduct CAS, offensive and defensive counter air, air Interdiction, assault support escort, and armed reconnaissance in concert with Marine Air Ground Task Force resources and capabilities”. The USMC also requires the jet’s Autonomic Logistic Information System V2 software to declare IOC. Like the USAF, the Marines require Block 3F for their future needs, the report says.
The US Navy however is holding firm on requiring the full Block 3F configuration for its F-35C IOC date. “If the F-35 IMS Version 7 executes according to plan, Navy F-35C IOC criteria could be met between August 2018 (Objective) and February 2019 (Threshold),” the report reads.
USN F-35C IOC is expected to be declared when the first operational squadron of 10 aircraft is manned, trained, and equipped to conduct its assigned missions. “The aircraft will be in a Block 3F configuration with the requisite SDD [system development and demonstration] performance envelope and weapon clearances,” the report reads. The USN says that it must have the Block 3F configuration to deal with threats in the post-2018 environment.