The US Air Force’s F-35A will fight ISIS in the near future, but don’t expect to see the Lockheed Martin Lightning II flying over Iraq or Syria this year.
The F-35A’s Middle East deployment is not imminent and is planned a few years out, USAF Air Combat Command chief Gen Herbert Carlisle told reporters 24 February. It’s unclear now whether the jet will have increased software capabilities by that point or will remain in the current Block 3i configuration. When the F-35A reached initial operational capability this summer, it fell short of its planned Block 3F configuration, which would have increased the aircraft’s weapons capacity and improve its targeting capability. The USAF expects Blocks 3F and 4 will be available by 2018 and 2021.
When the USAF readies for its Central Command deployment, the service will take stock of 3F testing progress, according to Carlisle. In order to maintain combat capability, the USAF will likely keep one squadron of F-35s in the 3i configuration he says. As the air force procures new 3F jets, the service will retrofit the 3i aircraft to block 3F, he adds.
“We’ll look at what that looks like when the timing comes to send the F-35,” Carlisle says. “Whether we send the 3i folks or 3Fs, we’ll look at that, I don’t think we have the answer to that right now.”
While the Pentagon’s top weapons tester has compared the Block 3i capabilities to a fourth-generation aircraft, Carlisle maintains the 3i aircraft is a combat ready fighter. He’s also made an aggressive push to increase the buy rate of F-35s to at least 60 aircraft per year. His colleague and deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements has warned against accelerating procurement before the development of Block 4. In a February Congressional testimony, Lt Gen Jerry Harris told lawmakers an increased F-35 procurement over the next five years would force the service to retrofit additional aircraft with Block 4 hardware and software modifications.
When faced with criticism over whether the service should continue buying more aircraft before initial operational test and evaluation completes, Carlisle told reporters Block 3i did not complete IOT&E before dropping weapons or participating in Red Flag exercises.
“The airplane is performing exceedingly well,” he says. “Do we know everything about it? No, we don’t know anything about any airplane before we put it into different environments. We learn as we go.”
“From my perspective, I would tell you that I have confidence in the airplane and would increase the buy rate and that we’ll learn things in IOTE and we’ll learn things as we finish out SDD, but everything we’ve seen to date gives me confidence that the airplane is combat capable,” he adds.
Before the F-35A deploys the Middle East, the block 3i aircraft could fly to Europe as early as this spring on a short deployment, Carlisle says. The USAF is also looking to the US Marine Corps for support in a Pacific deployment. In January, the first F-35B squadron moved to Iwakuni, Japan.