The announcement marks a significant step in the largest weapons program in history. A total of nearly 2,500 planes are planned in three versions for the Marines, Navy and Air Force, and many foreign countries are buying the fifth-generation aircraft as well.
“The decision was made following a thorough operational readiness inspection, which assessed the Marine Corps’ ability to employ this complex weapon system in an operational environment,” said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. “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.”
The Lockheed Martin-built F-35B, also known as the Lighting II, can take off vertically from assault carriers and fly at supersonic speed while its stealth design hides it from enemy radar. It will eventually replace the Marines’ AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler.
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 based in Yuma, AZ, is the first to be operational. Marine Corps Commandant Joseph F. Dunford Jr. said the squadron “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.
“The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our nation with its first fifth-generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win,” Dunford added.
The new jet’s development has not been without controversy, with critics saying it is too complex and not sufficiently maneuverable in combat. However, Lockheed Martin says the new aircraft regularly beats opponents in test flights and simulations.
The Marines are the first to get the new jets. The Air Force version is expected to be operational next year, followed by the Navy version in 2017.