Lockheed F-35 jets ace exercises as U.S. readies for combat use

Fri Jul 15, 2016 1:38pm EDT
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By Andrea Shalal

FARNBOROUGH, England (Reuters) - After 15 years of cost overruns and technical delays, the Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N: Quote) F-35 fighter jet is now knocking out "enemy" forces in combat exercises and surviving attacks in a way that even U.S. military officials say they did not expect.

The new stealthy warplane wowed crowds at two UK air shows over the past week, showing off its capabilities in what U.S. officials say is part of a larger drive to boost NATO's defenses and counter growing threats around the world.

But the real work is going on behind the scenes, including a series of combat exercises involving the more than 185 jets already delivered to the U.S. Marines Corp, Air Force and other countries such as Norway, Britain, the Netherlands and Australia; live fire weapons testing; and serious planning for how to use the jets in combat if needed.

There is some convincing to be done.

Critics say the F-35, at just under $100 million per plane, is far more costly than alternatives; that it will initially lack the ability to fire certain weapons and that it may be less capable in dogfights than older models.

But U.S. officials argue the plane's sophisticated fusion technology will let it spot enemy jets from such a distance that it never get into an actual dogfight, and that its cost will drop to around $85 million by 2019, stepping up competition with rivals such as Boeing Co F/A-18 and Eurofighter.

Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall, who once described plans by his predecessors to buy three different F-35 models before they had been fully developed as "acquisition malpractice," said the program had clearly turned a corner.

The Marine Corps' first operational squadron of 10 F-35B jets, which can take off from shorter runways and land like a helicopter, will move permanently to Iwakuni, Japan, in less than six months, to be joined by six more jets in June 2017 when the USS Wasp amphibious ship arrives in the region.   Continued...

A U.S. Marine Corps Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter jet hovers over the runway at the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, Britain July 15, 2016.  REUTERS/Peter Nicholls