While several international partners in the F-35 Joint Strike fighter program have threatened to back out, citing exorbitant costs and performance issues, the United States has stood by their airplane, and the US Air Force may finally be ready to declare its first 12 F-35As ready for combat.
"We have achieved all our milestones," said Lt. Col. Steven Anderson, deputy commander of the 388th Maintenance Group, according to Defense News. "We have submitted all of the data to ACC [Air Combat Command] for General [Herbert] Carlisle’s consideration on making that declaration."
Hill Air Force base, which houses the squadron, has filed official paperwork after going through an extensive checklist to ensure the F-35s’ capabilities.
While the air base has 15 F-35s, only 12 have received the modifications necessary to meet combat readiness requirements. These include adequate lightning protection and fuel system improvements.
In March, tests showed that the aircraft suffered from a software glitch that affected the plane’s radar systems and flight performance. The 12 F-35s have received a patch that fixes these previous issues, according to tests performed with a separate squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.
"We’ve deployed with the current software we had and it worked," Carlisle said, according to Defense News. "The Marines have deployed with it in its current configuration.
"It’s not quite up to where we wanted to be, but there’s workarounds."
Hill Air Force base has also focused heavily on flight training for pilots, another requirement on the checklist. It now has more than enough pilots who have conducted the required number of training sorties and gone through intensive analysis of the F-35’s diagnostics.
"As of today, we have 21 pilots combat mission ready based on the number of training sorties they’ve done in the last 30 days," said Lt. Col. George Watkins, commander of the squadron.
The $1 trillion F-35 program has suffered dozens of setbacks throughout its production. In addition to flight performance tests that show the fifth-generation fighter is outperformed by older aircraft, the F-35 has also experienced technical errors that could put the pilot’s life at risk, including a faulty ejection seat.
Even if the F-35A is approved for combat next week, the program’s other variants may have further to go. The US Marine Corps’ F-35B vertical-lift variant only began tests aboard amphibious ships earlier this month.