WASHINGTON — The US Navy says that its version of the F-35 fighter jet is now ready for combat.
After more than two decades of testing and development, the service announced Thursday that the advanced aircraft has achieved Initial Operating Capability, meaning it passed the proper tests to be flown on missions.
Thursday’s announcement comes shortly after the first squadron of Navy F-35s completed aircraft carrier qualifications aboard USS Carl Vinson.
“The F-35C is ready for operations, ready for combat and ready to win,” said Vice Admiral DeWolfe Miller, commander of Naval Air Forces. “We are adding an incredible weapon system into the arsenal of our Carrier Strike Groups that significantly enhances the capability of the joint force.”
Officially declaring the stealth fighter jet mission-ready represents a major milestone for the Navy and the aircraft’s primary contractor Lockheed Martin.
“We congratulate the Department of the Navy on achieving Initial Operational Capability with its fleet of F-35Cs,” Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, said in a statement.
“This milestone is the result of unwavering dedication from our joint government and industry team focused on delivering the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter jet in the world to the men and women of the US Navy,” he added.
Touted as the future of military aviation, the F-35 is a lethal and versatile aircraft that combines stealth capabilities, supersonic speed, extreme agility and state-of-the-art sensor fusion technology, according to Lockheed.
The jet, which maintains stealth capabilities making it harder for enemy radars to detect, has been a favorite of President Donald Trump, who has lauded the F-35 several times for being “invisible.”
However, the aircraft, which is the most expensive weapons system in history, has also drawn sharp criticism in recent years after facing a long list of setbacks — including problems with the software, engines and weapon systems.
And critics have continued to express skepticism about the F-35’s combat capability despite reassurances by US military leaders who say the kinks are being worked out.
The F-35C is one of three variants of the aircraft. The US Marine Corps declared its first squadron of F-35s ready for deployment in July 2015 and the Air Force said its version of the aircraft was combat ready in August 2016.
The Marine Corps accomplished a significant milestone last year by deploying its variant to Japan — the aircraft’s first permanent overseas deployment.
And last May, Israel said they were using their version of the F-35 in operational missions, marking the first time that the aircraft participated in an actual combat situation.
CNN previously reported that a US F-35B conducted its first-ever airstrike in September, according to the US Marine Corps and three US defense officials.
The strike took place in Afghanistan against a fixed Taliban target. The aircraft involved were the US Marine Corps’ variant of the aircraft flying from the USS Essex amphibious assault ship.