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WASHINGTON — In a milestone for the F-35 joint strike fighter, the US Marine Corps today declared the F-35B jump-jet model to have achieved initial operational capability (IOC).

The news means that the Marines consider the F-35B model – one of three designs of the multi-role fighter — to be an active plane that can perform in operations the same way any other active aircraft in its arsenal can.

The plane was declared operational by Gen. Joe Dunford, the outgoing Marine Corps commandant — and incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — in a July 31 announcement.

"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," Dunford said in a statement. "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."

The Marines plan on buying 420 total jets, a mix of 340 B and 80 C models. The first F-35B deployment is scheduled to take place in 2017, with the unit known as VMFA-121 moving to Iwakuni, Japan.

Although the jets will be operational, they are not in their final form. More capability, including the use of the plane's gun, will come down the line with software update 3F, which will drop in 2017.

While this is one IOC target down, two more remain. The F-35A conventional take-off and landing model will go operational for the Air Force in the fall of 2016. The carrier variant F-35C, which will be used both by the Navy and Marines, is scheduled to go operational in 2018, with a more up-to-date software package.

But make no mistake — this is a major moment for the program, which is planned to provide the backbone of American air power for decades to come. Especially because for years it felt like IOC may never come for the jet.

When the contract for the F-35 was awarded to Lockheed Martin in October 2001, US undersectrary for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics Pete Aldridge pledged it would be "the world's premier strike platform beginning in 2008."

But the F-35 program was plagued by cost overruns, technical failures and major delays. It spent most of the 2000s as a favorite target for critics of Pentagon procurement, the post child for program growth run amuck.

In 2010, the Pentagon and Congress worked together to re-baseline the program and set new targets. While there have been some controversies, including an engine failure last June that destroyed an F-35A model in Florida, the program has largely stayed on track since that re-baseline occurred. It has also had great success in competitions overseas, having swept every international fighter competition it has entered.

With the F-35 hitting this milestone, it is interesting to note Pentagon officials have begun openly talking about reviewing the planned purchase of 2,443 jets across the three services.

When the F-35 was at its lowest point, there were fears that cutting the projected buy could send the program into a "death spiral" that would see international partners abandoning the jet, hence driving costs up which in turn would lead to more partners abandoning the program.

Now, with procurement looking steady for the next several years, DoD officials seem willing to discuss whether the long-standing 2,443 figure is still the best way forward.

In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dunford said the Pentagon was reviewing that total. And on Thursday, the Obama administration's choice to be the next Chief of Naval Operations indicated he was open to looking at the Navy's planned buy of 340 C models.

If confirmed, Admr. John Richardson wrote, he "will work with the Chairman and other service chiefs to revalidate the appropriate number of aircraft the Navy requires to meet the mission."

Reactions to News

Unsurprisingly, reaction from Pentagon and industry leadership was swift and glowing to the news.

Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program head, called the decision a "significant event" for the program and applauded the Marines for achieving IOC at the start of their six-month window. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, also applauded the decision, while acknowledging that work remains to complete future software updates.

"This accomplishment is an affirmation that the F-35 program is on track to deliver essential 5th generation warfighting capabilities to our US services and international partners," Kendall wrote in a statement."It is also a reminder that we still have work ahead to deliver the full warfighting capability required by all three services and our partners while we continue our successful efforts to drive cost out of the program."

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, whose service is scheduled to be the next to go operational, tweeted out her congratulations.

Prime contractor Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, was less restrained.

"Fifty years from now, historians will look back on the success of the F-35 Program and point to Marine Corps IOC as the milestone that ushered in a new era in military aviation," the company said in a statement. "To every Marine in the Corps, congratulations on this significant achievement and we look forward to supporting the Marine Air Ground Task Force as you execute your vital mission!"

A joint statement from Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce, the two companies that develop the vertical liftoff engine used in the F-35B model, also congratulated the Marines.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

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