12:18 GMT29 October 2020
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    The United States Navy is likely to hit a goal set in 2013 to prepare the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter for combat by February 2019, according to a new report.

    Snafus with the potential to derail the F-35 program have not happened in recent months, Military.com reported Friday. The Navy's Joint Strike Fighter Fleet Integration Office is "confident," therefore, that it will meet program milestones "as planned," spokeswoman Lt. Lauren Chatmas said in a Friday statement to military.com.

    With a projected lifecycle cost in excess of $1.5 trillion, the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive military program in the United States' history. A lone F-35C squadron dubbed the "Argonauts" earned a safety certification aboard the USS Carl Vinson in early December.

    The Defense Department targeted initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35C on a rough schedule anywhere from August 2018 to February 2019, according to a departmental report dated June 2013. If the IOC testing is completed successfully by next month's end, the program will be hitting its "threshold" mark for IOC; August 2018 was the "objective" for when it should have been wrapped up.

    Instead, Navy-specific testing started in September.

    Navy officials previously blamed the sputtering IOC testing schedule on the Defense Department's habit of missing deadlines. "The whole F-35 enterprise's IOT&E [initial operational test and evaluation] starts in September, so it's not Navy's F-35C that's holding up IOC, it's that we're tied to IOT&E and need to see the demonstration and the capabilities," Rear Adm. Dale Horan said last March, USNI News reported.

    Horan did not shared in Chatmas' optimism about hitting the February IOC target. "We really need to see the 3F capability demonstrated in IOT&E, and there's just not going to be enough time to see enough of that before Feb. 2019," Horan said, noting it was "DoD's opportunity to test drive their new airplane." The 3F capability refers to the plane's software system.

    "I'm just saying that those dates are at risk and it's based on the capabilities and events that we need to see," he said.

    An evaluation separate from the Navy's testing of the F-35C, the Defense Department's overarching initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) phase, kicked off in December 16 months behind schedule, Sputnik News reported.

    Horan said the F-35C's delayed IOC — whether at the fault of the Navy or the Pentagon — should not be an obstacle to the aircraft's first deployment, slated for 2021.

    The F-35C version of the aircraft is unique in that it will take off and land from aircraft carriers. IOC is the last major testing stage a weapons program must go through before industrial suppliers start mass production, sometimes called "full-rate production" as opposed to the purgatory of "low-rate initial production" (LIRP) the F-35 program has been stuck in since 2007.

    These testing programs are playing out even as more than 340 F-35 aircraft are currently in operation at 15 bases around the world, F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin said in a statement last month, adding that it was also "confident" in the F-35 weapons systems' "operational performance, capability and suitability."

    Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson described the F-35 as the firm's "the largest driver" of international revenue growth, while 20 percent of the company's overall revenue traces back to domestic or international F-35 sales, Fortune magazine reported in March 2017.


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