U.S. Marines Corps declares ten F-35Bs operational after the US spent $100 billion and counting

The U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35B Lightning II aircraft reached initial operational capability July 31, 2015 with a squadron of 10 F-35Bs ready for world-wide deployment.

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), based in Yuma, Arizona, is the first squadron in military history to become operational with an F-35 variant, following a five-day Operational Readiness Inspection, which concluded July 17.

“I am pleased to announce that VMFA-121 has achieved Initial Operational Capability in the F-35B, as defined by requirements outlined in the June 2014 Joint Report to Congressional Defense Committees,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps. “VMFA-121 has ten aircraft in the Block 2B configuration with the requisite performance envelope and weapons clearances, to include the training, sustainment capabilities, and infrastructure to deploy to an austere site or a ship. It 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.”

Dunford stated that he has his full confidence in the F-35B’s ability to support Marines in combat, predicated on years of concurrent developmental testing and operational flying.

As the future of Marine Corps tactical aviation, the F-35 will eventually replace three legacy platforms: the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet, and the EA-6B Prowler.

The U.S. Marine Corps has trained and qualified more than 50 Marine F-35B pilots and certified about 500 maintenance personnel to assume autonomous, organic-level maintenance support for the F-35B.

VMFA-121’s transition will be followed by Marine Attack Squadron 211 (VMA-211), an AV-8B squadron, which is scheduled to transition to the F-35B in fiscal year 2016. In 2018, VMA-311 will conduct its transition to the F-35B.

$100 billion and may years to get to this point

The first F-35A (designated AA-1) was rolled out in Fort Worth, Texas, on 19 February 2006. In September 2006, the first engine run of the F135 in an airframe took place. On 15 December 2006, the F-35A completed its maiden flight. A modified Boeing 737–300, the Lockheed CATBird has been used as an avionics test-bed for the F-35 program, including a duplication of the cockpit.

The first F-35B (designated BF-1) made its maiden flight on 11 June 2008, piloted by BAE Systems’ test pilot Graham Tomlinson. Flight testing of the STOVL propulsion system began on 7 January 2010. The F-35B’s first hover was on 17 March 2010, followed by its first vertical landing the next day. During a test flight on 10 June 2010, the F-35B STOVL aircraft achieved supersonic speeds as had the X-35B before. In January 2011, Lockheed Martin reported that a solution had been found for the cracking of an aluminum bulkhead during ground testing of the F-35B. In 2013, the F-35B suffered another bulkhead cracking incident. This will require redesign of the aircraft, which is already very close to the ultimate weight limit

Through FY2013, the F-35 program has received a total of roughly $83.3 billion of funding in then-year dollars, including roughly $49.0 billion in research and development, about 33.1 billion in procurement, and roughly $1.2 billion in military construction.

The Pentagon plans to spend about $10.6 billion on the F-35 in the fiscal year ending Oct. 1, 2015 a 23 percent increase over the previous year. The money will buy 57 aircraft versus 38 from the prior spending plan. The procurement figure is also higher than the 55 the Pentagon had previously said it was planning to buy this year.

Lockheed has so far made 120 F-35s and has another 100 in various stages of production. According to the company, each plane costs about $108 million, a 57 percent decline from eight years ago. Lockheed expects the price to fall to $85 million by 2019 as production gets more efficient.

In 2014, Lockheed delivered 36 F-35 fighter jets, producing them at an average rate of 3 per month. During the fourth quarter, Lockheed also finalized the lot 8 production (LRIP – low rate initial production) contract with the government for 43 F-35s. Deliveries for this contract will be made in 2015. So, Lockheed’s F-35 production and delivery volume is set to rise in the current year. Thereafter, in 2016 and 2017, F-35 production will significantly ramp up, crossing a run rate of 100 annual deliveries in 2018.

Lockheed’s revenue rose by 9% per year to $12.5 billion, and its profit improved to $904 million in the fourth quarter. This strong fourth quarter enabled Lockheed to grow its 2014 top line, against expectations and the company’s own guidance. Lockheed posted $45.6 billion in total revenue in 2014, up marginally from $45.4 billion in 2013.

The Daily Beast reported last month that incomplete software means F-35 fighters won’t be able to fire their 25mm cannons until 2019 at the earliest, years after the jet goes into operation. Even once the gun is able to fire, the jet isn’t designed to carry much ammunition, making the cannon of limited use. The Pentagon disputed the severity of the reported problems.

SOURCES – Fiscal Times, Bidnessetc, Fas.org, Daily Beast, Forbes, Marines.mil