The US Navy declared the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II, the aircraft carrier-capable variant of the stealth fighter, to have achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on 28 February.

The declaration comes shortly after the USN’s first F-35C squadron, Strike Fighter Squadron 147, completed aircraft carrier qualifications aboard USS Carl Vinson and received a Safe-For-Flight Operations Certification, the service said. The US Air Force declared IOC for its conventional-takeoff and landing F-35A in 2016 and the US Marine Corps’ short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing F-35B was declared IOC in 2015 – meaning all US variants are now operational.

In order to declare IOC, the first F-35C operational squadron had to be manned, trained and equipped to conduct assigned missions in support of fleet operations, says the USN. That includes having 10 Block 3F, F-35C aircraft, requisite spare parts, support equipment, tools, technical publications, training programmes and a functional Autonomic Logistic Information System.

Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II

Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II

US Navy

“The F-35C is ready for operations, ready for combat and ready to win,” says Commander Naval Air Forces, Vice Admiral DeWolfe Miller. “We are adding an incredible weapon system into the arsenal of our carrier strike groups that significantly enhances the capability of the joint force.”

The USN says that Naval Air Station Lemoore, California is home-base for its Joint Strike Fighter Wing, F-35C fleet squadrons and the Fleet Replacement Squadron 125, which trains USN and USMC F-35 pilots. To accommodate the F-35C programme at Lemoore, several facilities were built or remodeled to facilitate specific F-35C maintenance and training needs, including a pilot fit facility, centralised engine repair facility, pilot training centre and a newly-remodeled hangar, says the USN.

The F-35C variant’s wings are 2.4m (7.9ft) wider than other variants and it has more robust landing gear, features which allow it to approach the aircraft carrier deck lower air speeds, while handling the stress of catapult launches and landing arrestments. Its wingtips also fold to allow it to make more room on a carrier’s deck. The F-35C’s 8,960kg (19,753lb) fuel capacity is also the greatest of the three F-35 variants, some 46% more than the other stealth fighters.

In addition to the USN, USMC and USAF, three other military aircraft operators have declared their F-35s IOC: the Israeli Air Force, Italian Air Force and the UK’s Royal Air Force.