WASHINGTON — The US Marine Corps has finished tests and filled out the paperwork needed to turn the F-35 joint strike fighter into an operational aircraft.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for Marine aviation, told reporters Monday that once Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford signs off on the paperwork, the F-35B fleet will have achieved initial operational capability (IOC), becoming the first model of the joint strike fighter to become operational.

"[Dunford has] got all the paperwork now. He's going through all that," Davis said. "I would say 'soon' but… he and I talked. He's a busy guy and he's working his way through that right now. I'll tell you we met all of the IOC criteria."

Getting Dunford's signature may take longer than it normally would, as he is currently up for nomination as Cchairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is possible the decision could slip to Dunford's nominated successor, Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, although that would be surprising.

Once IOC is declared on the jump-jet variant, the F-35B will be deployable by the Marines in the same manner as any other military aircraft. The first F-35B deployment is scheduled to take place in 2017, with the unit known as VMFA-121 moving to Iwakuni, Japan.

However, if national security objectives required it, Davis said, the planes could be deployed anywhere in the world post IOC. Which is to say, the F-35 will no longer be a paper airplane, but rather one that is part of the overall US military aviation arsenal.

It is a milestone for an F-35 program which suffered years of delays and cost overruns, having been branded as the "trillion dollar plane" and "the plane that ate the Pentagon" by critics.

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.

One issue revolves around how the F-35 does data fusion between ships. The fighter is designed to gather information through its sensor suites and share it with other F-35s in the area, with up to four jets gathering situational awareness data and creating a joint operational picture for the pilots.

Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program head, revealed in March that during testing, the F-35 system had trouble identifying if the target was one target or multiple, something he said was a result of each plane looking at the target from a slightly different angle or using different sensors.

For now, Davis said, the Marines have changed their concept of operations as a workaround. Instead of fusing the data between the four planes, the jets will be paired off, in what Davis referred to as a "2+2" configuration.

Davis said prime contractor Lockheed Martin is "getting closer" on fixing the issue. Asked for a timeframe, he was firm: "we demand it be fixed for 3F."

Asked about concerns with the F-35 is, Davis highlighted the need to keep the fighters rolling off Lockheed's Fort. Worth, Texas plant.

"We do need to build airplanes, and start producing them to make sure we have the aircraft in numbers to replace our legacy platforms, and frankly bring this capability to our warfighters," he said.

That's notable given that Dunford wrote in response to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee indicated that, for the first time in years, the Pentagon is weighing whether 2,443 F-35s is the right size buy.

"Given the evolving defense strategy and the latest Defense Planning Guidance, we are presently taking the newest strategic foundation and analyzing whether 2,443 aircraft is the correct number," Dunford wrote.

Asked if the Pentagon should look at buying less F-35s, Davis was blunt: "No."

"Right now I can't imagine wanting to cut back on the buy, because right now I'm replacing a greater number of F-18s, Harriers and Prowlers," Davis said. "Obviously ill defer to the commandant and do what he says. He and I have not talked about reducing the number of F-35s, so I'd have to go back and talk to him about that."

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.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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