This story has been updated to reflect the U.S. Navy’s official IOC announcement.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy declared the carrier-launched version of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter ready to deploy Thursday, a major milestone nearly two decades in the making, according to news release from U.S. Naval Air Forces.
Ten Block 3F F-35Cs from Strike Fighter Squadron 147 completed carrier qualifications aboard the Carl Vinson and received safe-for-flight operations certification, the release said, leading the Navy to declare initial operating capability. The announcement was in line with its previously announced intention to declare IOC in February 2019, which was spelled out in a 2013 report to Congress.
The declaration means the plane can deploy in some reduced capacity, but the jet has yet to reach full operational capability.
“The F-35C is ready for operations, ready for combat and ready to win,” Naval Air Forces head Vice Adm, DeWolfe Miller said in the release. “We are adding an incredible weapon system into the arsenal of our Carrier Strike Groups that significantly enhances the capability of the joint force.”
In order to achieve IOC, the Navy had to hit a number of wickets: VFA-147 had to be certified as properly manned, trained and equipped to conduct missions, including having the 10 aircraft, spare parts, support equipment, tools, technical publications, training programs and a functional Autonomic Logistic Information System (ALIS), the release said.
The ship designated to support the squadron had to have all its infrastructure and training in place as well, and the joint program office and industry support also had to demonstrate its readiness to support the aircraft, according to the release.
The squadron, wing and various support functions will be based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, the release said.
The F-35C, a descendant of Lockheed Martin’s X-35 that first flew in 2000, will be substantially different from its F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet forerunners. Some of its chief virtues lie more with what it won’t be shooting rather than what it will.
Its passive sensors and target-sharing capabilities accelerate the Navy down a path it’s been forging since China and Russia became challenges to U.S. primacy in the world: moving away from large, active sensors, such as the AN/SPY-1 anti-air warfare radars that are easy to detect with electronic warfare equipment, and relying more on passive sensors.
The Navy is driving toward combining the aircraft’s stealth characteristics with the ability to passively develop and share kill-quality target data with other aircraft — Super Hornets equipped with Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, for example, or even cruisers and destroyers specializing in anti-air warfare — allowing the fighter to let others do the shooting while it remains undetected.
And while electronic and cyber intrusions are ever-present concerns for the targeting network under development, the Navy’s fielding of missiles with ever-increasing range — such as Raytheon’s SM-6 — pushes the battlespace for the Navy’s surface shooters out to ranges that would be difficult to fathom three decades ago, the last time the U.S. had a significant geostrategic competitor.
The head of the Navy’s F-35C integration office said the new jet will change the way the Navy fights in the air.
“The F-35C will revolutionize capability and operating concepts of aircraft carrier-based naval aviation using advanced technologies to find, fix and assess threats and, if necessary, track, target and engage them in all contested environments,” said Rear Admiral Dale Horan.
“This accomplishment represents years of hard work on the part of the F-35 Joint Program Office and Naval Aviation Enterprise. Our focus has now shifted to applying lessons learned from this process to future squadron transitions, and preparing VFA-147 for their first overseas deployment.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.