Exclusive: U.S. Air Force to move forward target date for F-35 use

Mon May 20, 2013 5:40pm EDT
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By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force plans to start operational use of Lockheed Martin Corp.-built (LMT.N: Quote) F-35 fighter jets in mid-2016, a year earlier than planned, using a similar software package as the Marine Corps, two sources familiar with the plans said on Monday.

The Air Force's decision to accelerate its introduction with a slightly less capable version of the F-35 software package means the planes will carry fewer weapons at first, although the software will later be upgraded to the final version, said the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said a final decision had not been made and declined to comment further. A spokesman for the Pentagon's F-35 program office declined to comment.

The decision reflects the military's desire to start using the new warplanes, which are already rolling off the assembly line at Lockheed's sprawling Fort Worth, Texas, plant, even as military officials continue to test the plane.

The Air Force, Marines and Navy must report to Congress by June 1 on their target dates for initial operational capability, or IOC, which marks the point when the services have enough planes on hand to go to war if needed. Actual deployments usually lag IOC dates by about a year.

The sources said the services would send Congress a list of target or "objective" dates for declaring initial operational capability and a list of "threshold" dates, or deadlines.

The Marines Corps is sticking to its plan to begin early operational use in mid-2015 of its F-35B jets, which can take off and land like a helicopter, making it the first of the three U.S. military services to start using the jets.

Its threshold is the end of 2015. The planes will run the F-35's 2B software, which will give the Marines an initial war fighting capability that includes some air-to-air skills, the ability to strike targets on the ground and carry several internal weapons, including laser-guided bombs.   Continued...

Workers can be seen on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lockheed Martin Corp's factory located in Fort Worth, Texas in this October 13, 2011 handout photo provided by Lockheed Martin. REUTERS/Lockheed Martin/Randy A. Crites/Handout