WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 fighter jet is on track both to meet the Marine Corps’s July target to declare the jet ready for combat use and to meet the Air Force’s target date a year later, top U.S. military officials said Thursday.
The F-35 B-model, which can take off from shorter runways and land like a helicopter, was making good progress and should meet the Marine Corp’s target for initial combat use, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told reporters after a speech at the annual conference of the Surface Navy Association.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh told a separate news conference at the Pentagon that he was confident the Air Force would meet its target date of declaring the F-35 A-model ready for initial combat use by August to December 2016.
He said the Air Force had found a way to maintain its initial detachment of operational F-35s despite a shortage of technicians caused by lawmakers’ refusal to allow the Air Force to retire its A-10 attack planes.
Mabus said the Navy still expected to declare the F-35 C-model, which is designed for use on aircraft carriers, ready for combat use by the end of the decade, as planned. The Navy tested the F-35C on board a ship for the first time in November.
“We’re not lukewarm about the F-35 in terms of the need for it in the fleet, and the fact that it’s going to form the backbone of our carrier air for a long time,” he said.
Mabus said the Navy was also assessing whether it needed more EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes built by Boeing Co, since it was now the only military service providing that capability.
He declined to discuss the Pentagon’s fiscal 2016 budget request, which will be delivered to Congress on Feb. 2, but his comment suggested the Navy could include additional Growlers in its budget request, or add them to an “unfunded priority” list sent separately to U.S. lawmakers for budget deliberations.
The Navy’s fiscal 2015 base budget request did not include any Growlers, but it added 22 of the jets to its unfunded list. Congress ultimately funded 15 planes as part of the 2015 budget.
Boeing is working with the Navy on how to stretch production of its F/A-18 and EA-18 jets in St. Louis past 2016. The planes added to the budget in 2015 could make production last through 2017 if the Navy agrees to a slower delivery schedule.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by James Dalgleish and Leslie Adler