(Adds details on testing program, byline)
By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON, May 18 (Reuters) - Six U.S. F-35B fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin Corp landed on the USS Wasp amphibious warship on Monday for two weeks of operational testing required before the Marine Corps can declare a first squadron of 10 F-35s ready for combat use in July, according to a U.S. defense official.
The testing, taking place off the coast of Virginia, will involve the six F-35 B-model jets, the highest number of F-35s ever used on a Navy warship to date, as well as Marine Corps pilots, maintenance personnel, and logistics experts, said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The tests will check the ability of the stealthy jets to integrate into flight and deck operations on board the ship. They will include operations and weapons loading at day and night, the jets’ ability to coordinate digitally with an on-board logistics system call ALIS, and how well the crew can deal with scheduled and unexpected repairs at sea.
The testing marks a milestone for the $391 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program. U.S. officials say the program has turned the corner after years of cost overruns and schedule delays.
Lockheed on Monday said it is working to resolve “relatively minor” issues with a portable version of the F-35 fighter jet’s automated logistics system, but the problems should not impede the Marine Corp milestone this summer.
Lockheed is racing to complete a smaller, lighter version of the F-35’s complex Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), ahead of July, when the Marine Corps plans to declare it has an initial operational capability (IOC) of F-35s.
The Marine Corps must also complete certain modifications of the 10 jets that will make up the initial squadron.
The Pentagon’s F-35 office said work on one of the jets had been completed, and two more would be finished this week. The seven remaining jets would be modified by the end of June, the office said.
Jeff Streznetcky, the Lockheed executive in charge of the F-35’s ALIS logistics system, on Monday told Reuters the larger, earlier version of ALIS was installed on the U.S. ship ahead of the test and was already being used to maintain the jets that will carry out the tests.
He said the system was performing “very, very well” thus far, and he expected a “seamless transition” once the jets arrived on board from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Bernard Orr)