Exclusive: U.S. Air Force to move forward target date for F-35 use
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.
"This decision gets that (U.S.) fifth-generation capability out on the front lines that much sooner," said one of the sources familiar with the Air Force's plans. "It also sends a message about confidence in the program to Congress and the international partners."
Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said accelerating operational use of the new warplane would allow the Air Force to learn more about the F-35's integrated battle management system.
"This is not just about replacing aging F-15's or F-16's; it is about changing the order of battle and truly embracing a integrated form of warfare where the F-35 manages the targeting and directs supporting fire at the same time as providing more precise aim points," Wynne told Reuters in an email.
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. Continued...