Earlier today, as expected, GEN Dunford declared that VMFA-121 had achieved Initial Operational Capability, essentially the entry of the jet into real service.
The news means that the Marines consider the F-35B model – one of three designs of the multi-role fighter — to be an active plane that can perform in operations the same way any other active aircraft in its arsenal can.
The plane was declared operational by Gen. Joe Dunford, the outgoing Marine Corps commandant — and incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — in a July 31 announcement.
“I am pleased to announce that VMFA-121 has achieved initial operational capability in the F-35B, as defined by requirements outlined in the June 2014 Joint Report to Congressional Defense Committees,” Dunford said in a statement. “VMFA-121 has ten aircraft in the Block 2B configuration with the requisite performance envelope and weapons clearances, to include the training, sustainment capabilities, and infrastructure to deploy to an austere site or a ship. It 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.”
Of course, IOC is a starting point, not an end. Every new platform has a steep learning curve associated with it. All the testing prior to this is conducted by the contractor, and the various test establishments of the services. The Fleet Replacement Squadron, commonly called the RAG, has focused on training aircrew and maintainers to operate the jet, while also beginning to serve as the tactical schoolhouse. But until the squadrons in the fleet actually get out there and start using the jet, it is difficult to really determine how best to operate and maintain it.
There will be bad news in the future, and stories of challenges and failures. Guess what? That happens with every single aircraft, vehicle, ship, radio, rifle, you name it.
We still maintain that the Marines insistence on STOVL capability has compromised the end product, and certainly driven the cost of the program much higher than it should have been.
But we also think the F-35 program as a whole will eventually field a capable attack platform with credible survivability in defended airspace.