WASHINGTON — The US Navy is planning at-sea testing of the carrier variant joint strike fighter in the first few weeks of October aboard the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, according to several sources. 
The upcoming sea trials will mark the second phase of developmental testing for the Lockheed Martin-made F-35C. During the test period, the team will evaluate the aircraft’s ability to launch and recover from the carrier, and its performance in suboptimal conditions and during night operations. 
The Navy conducted initial sea trials with the fighter jet aboard the carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) off the coast of Southern California in November. During the testing period, the Navy completed 124 catapult launches and arrested landings with zero missed arrestments, service spokeswoman Sylvia Pierson said Thursday. Because Since the aircraft performed so well, the test team decided to conduct night operations, an unprecedented feat during the first at-sea period of any naval aircraft since the F-4 era, Pierson said. 
Pierson characterized the November trials as "history-making," adding that the team completed all test goals ahead of schedule.
"Testers also accelerated the F-35C program test and evaluation objectives by six months as they completed all 2014 carrier-based threshold test goals ahead of schedule, developed a large amount of the initial aircraft launch and recovery bulletins, and paved the way for F-35 fifth generation fighters to deliver an unprecedented stealth-at-sea capability to the carrier air wing," she said. 
The initial tests also qualified the four test pilots to fly the aircraft in at-sea test events, Pierson noted. 
The news of the upcoming testing comes amid indications budget pressures and competing priorities could drive the Navy to purchase fewer of the planes per year in the 2020s. The current plan is to purchase around 20 F-35Cs annually during that decade, but one top service official said recently that number could fall to as low as 12. 

"I think the current realities of the budget environment and other priorities inside the Navy may drive something between those two numbers," Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of naval air forces, said last week at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I'll keep working as hard as I can with our leadership in the building to ensure we can stay on the path and get out of classic Hornets [and] replace them with our F-35Cs as quick as we can."

Shoemaker's comments are particularly notable as it comes on the heels of a suggestion by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford that the Pentagon is weighing whether to stick to its plan to buy 2,443 F-35s overall.

"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 in response to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The F-35C is expected to become operational by 2018, when the Navy will stand up an operational squadron with 10 F-35Cs and trained pilots. 
The carrier variant of the joint strike fighter will be the last model to become operational: The Marine Corps declared initial operational capability on its vertical takeoff and landing F-35B earlier this summer, and the Air Force plans to declare its conventional takeoff and landing F-35A ready to go in the fall of 2016.

The Air Force marked a milestone in its F-35 test program earlier this month when the test team fired the plane's gun for the first time at full capacity during a ground test at Edwards Air Force Base. An F-35A fired 181 rounds from the four-barrel, 25mm Gatling gun during the Aug. 14 test, according to an Aug. 20 statement from the Joint Program Office.

The test team is aiming to complete ground testing this month and begin airborne gun testing in the fall, according to the statement.

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