The most expensive weapons system in the history of the Pentagon is being deployed after 13 years of development.
The Marine Corps version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, has been approved for combat and the first squadron of planes is now operational.
They are calling the F-35 a fifth generation fighter. But given how long it’s taken to bring to the flight line, it seems they may have skipped a generation or two.
The program has numerous critics who complain about everything from its cost to questions about its safety. No doubt, it’s expensive. The army version of the plane, the F-35A comes in at a relatively cheap $148 million per plane. The Marine’s F-35B skies to $251 million. And the Navy’s F-35C is costing the American taxpayer $337 million. Most versions of the F-18 Hornet, on the other hand, cost about $80 million each.
The Marine Corps announced Friday that the first squadron of 10 stealthy F-35B Joint Strike Fighters is ready for worldwide deployment.
The announcement marks a significant step in the largest weapons program in history. A total of nearly 2,500 planes are planned in three versions for the Marines, Navy and Air Force, and many foreign countries are buying the fifth-generation aircraft as well.
“The decision was made following a thorough operational readiness inspection, which assessed the Marine Corps’ ability to employ this complex weapon system in an operational environment,” said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. “This achievement is a testament to the efforts of the F-35 joint program office and industry team, as well as the hard work and support from the Marine Corps.”
The Lockheed Martin-built F-35B, also known as the Lighting II, can take off vertically from assault carriers and fly at supersonic speed while its stealth design hides it from enemy radar. It will eventually replace the Marines’ AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler.
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 based in Yuma, AZ, is the first to be operational. Marine Corps Commandant Joseph F. Dunford Jr. said the squadron “is capable of conducting close air support, offensive and defensive counter air, air interdiction, assault support escort and armed reconnaissance as part of a Marine air-ground task force, or in support of the joint force.
“The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our nation with its first fifth-generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win,” Dunford added.
The Pentagon plans to buy more than 2400 of these fighters, and American allies are lining up to purchase them. But its projected $1.4 trillion operating cost over the plane’s lifetime might cause some sticker shock.