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After years of testing and development delays, the U.S. Air Force said Tuesday that Lockheed Martin's F-35A stealth fighter jet is "combat-ready."
"I am proud to announce this powerful new weapons system has achieved initial combat capability," General Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, said in a release. "The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory, because it can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield."
The announcement is a major boost for Lockheed, which has pinned its hopes on the fighter aircraft and largely self-financed the program since winning the deal in 2001. Lockheed stock was up marginally in above average trading on Tuesday.
A Lockheed spokesman termed the news "a historic and monumental day for the program."
According the Air Force, the F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation fighter had met all key criteria for reaching initial operational capability, including "limited suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses in a contested environment with an operational squadron of 12-24 aircraft."
The U.S. military said Monday that the F-35A completed its first live air-to-air "kill" test by launching an air-to-air missile and directly hitting a drone over a military test range off the California coast on July 28.
"The U.S. Air Force decision to make the 15 F-35As at Hill Air Force Base combat ready sends a simple and powerful message to America's friends and foes alike — the F-35 can do its mission," said Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 Program Executive Officer.
"This successful test demonstrates the combat capability the F-35 will bring to the U.S. military and our allies," U.S. Air Force Maj. Raven LeClair, the test pilot, said in a release.
The Air Force will operate the largest F-35 fleet in the world with more than 1,700 aircraft.
In June, the F-35 was deployed at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho where it cleared 88 of 88 sorties and "performed exceptionally well in mock combat engagements," Lockheed Chairman and CEO Marillyn Hewson disclosed during the company's recent earnings conference call. She also said the aircraft is "achieving increased stability in the software on the aircraft and in the ground support equipment."
Lockheed has self-funded around $1 billion for production of the aircraft under two initial contracts and in July told analysts that amount might grow to levels of as much as $500 million per month.
On the production side, Lockheed said it expects to increase deliveries to 53 F-35 aircraft this year. Through July 19, the company has delivered about 180 aircraft since the program's inception.
The fighter program was originally expected to cost about $1.5 trillion by the end of the aircraft's 55-year life cycle, although the cost per jet is down nearly 60 percent since the first plane was delivered.
There are three variants of the F-35 aircraft — the Air Force's F-35A (conventional takeoff and landing version), the F-35B (a U.S. Marine Corps version capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings) and the F-35C (the Navy version with larger wings, special landing gear for aircraft carriers, and greater fuel capacity).
The F-35B variant was declared operational last July by the U.S. Marine Corps, meaning it is ready to be deployed. The F-35C is still undergoing testing and the Pentagon is estimating it will be operational in 2019.