The Air Force has declared the F-35A fighter jet combat-ready, marking a major milestone for the plane that has long faced technical challenges and cost overruns.
In a statement released Tuesday, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, described the F-35 as the "most dominant aircraft in our inventory."
"It can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield," he said.
The designation of combat readiness, known in military terms as initial operational capability, or IOC, means at least a dozen F-35s have trained personnel and can provide basic air support to ground troops and deploy a limited number of weapons.
However, it won't get its final software until next year, and then testing will continue for an additional two years before the plane is able to fulfill all its missions.
"It is good political news," said Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense research firm. "But in addition to being very late, it's just at the basic level of initial operational capability. It's going to be a long time before it's a fully capable strike aircraft."
The F-35B model for the Marines, which can take off from short airfields and land vertically, was declared combat-ready last summer. The Navy's variant of the jet, which has larger wings and hardier landing gear to help with carrier landings, is expected to be declared combat-ready in 2018.
More than 3,000 F-35s will eventually be built for the U.S. and 11 other countries. Most of those will be the Air Force variant, which has conventional takeoff and landing capabilities.
The F-35 is set to enter full-scale production in 2019.
In the Los Angeles area alone, there are close to 150 subcontractors that supply parts and software to the fighter jet's builder, Lockheed Martin Corp. Those suppliers are responsible for more than 10,000 direct and indirect jobs in the area, Lockheed said.
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