The U.S. military just took a big step towards fielding a new, stealthy jet fighter that proponents say will revolutionize U.S. combat power in the Pacific. The U.S. Air Force’s training command reportedly gave approval for a pair of experienced pilots to being flying F-35A stealth fighters on limited missions in the vicinity of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, home to the 33rd Fighter Wing. The Wing will train Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps pilots on their different versions of the fighter. The test flights, approved on Friday, are meant to pave the way for full-scale training.
The Lockheed Martin-made F-35 is still in testing at sites across the United States; the Air Force expects the jet and its pilots to be fully combat-ready no earlier than 2018. In all, the Pentagon plans to purchase around 2,500 F-35s for all three branches of the military. Foreign customers include the United Kingdom, Turkey and Japan, among many others – and potentially South Korea, depending on the results of a new fighter competition.
The F-35 is a large, complex aircraft, with sophisticated sensors, a high degree of radar and infrared stealth and, in its “B” model, the ability to take off and land vertically. Problems with testing and manufacture have delayed the F-35 program by years and added billions to its roughly $400-billion acquisition cost.
But the Pentagon is determined to stick with the controversial jet. The Obama administration’s five-year defense plan, released last month, cut back many other programs and retired 150 existing fighters, but left the F-35 plan intact. Marine Corps Commandant James Amos said there is no viable alternative to the fighter. “To do the things that our nation requires of this Marine Corps, we need this airplane.” With Marine F-35s on board, each of the Navy's nine large-deck amphibious assault ships – similar in size and appearance to a World War II aircraft carrier – can function as a back-up for the 11 full-size nuclear super-carriers, Amos said.
Robbin Laird, a prominent military analyst, wrote that the F-35 “will revolutionize air combat operations, especially in the Pacific,” where Russia and China are acquiring new fighters. In China’s case this includes the J-20 stealth fighter, and at least one aircraft carrier.