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The US could send its new F-35 to fight the Islamic State

After many years of troubled development, the most expensive warplane ever produced is ready for combat. Not everybody is convinced, but its pilots say it's great.

by Davide Mastracci
Aug 3 2016, 5:45pm

Due F-35A volano in una località non meglio specificata. (Foto via EPA)

The warplane produced by the most expensive weapons program ever is finally ready for combat, after many troubled years of development.

The US Air Force said Tuesday that the Lockheed Martin F-35, which may cost $1 trillion to build and operate, is ready to go to war. A top general suggested it could be used to fight the Islamic State soon.

A tweet by the Air Force said the F-35A model was "IOC," Pentagon jargon for "initial operational capability." In other words: the jet has been tested enough that it can be confidently used in real combat.

The Air Force has around 70 of the planes out of more than 1,700 it ordered. Air Combat Command commander Herbert Carlisle said in a conference announcing the development that it would be possible to immediately send some of them F-35 for deployment in the Middle East.

Flying the F-35 jets over Iraq and Syria, Carlisle says, would send a "good signal" as it "reassures friends and allies and it is a deterrent to potential adversaries."

Carlisle noted, however, that the jets likely won't be used in the fight against the Islamic State any time before 2017, adding that he hopes to have the jets deployed in the European and Pacific theaters within 18 months.

Related: Here's What the US and Its Allies Can Do With Their New F-35s

Some specialists, however, doubt that the F-35 will be making its combat debut anytime soon.

Dan Grazier, a fellow of the US-based Project On Government Oversight, told CNN the combat-ready announcement is "nothing but a public relations stunt" intended to make it appear as though the Air Force is making good on an earlier promise to have the jets, also known as Joint Strike Fighter because the Navy and Marines will also fly them, ready by August.

"If they didn't make this declaration now, the Air Force and the Joint Strike Fighter program would be embarrassed at the very least and cause serious questions about future funding," Grazier said.

The F-35 is still also missing a key advanced logistics system, which was supposed to be ready now but has been pushed back until November.

Pilots love the aircraft, though, especially because of its stealth; it's almost impossible to see on radar, making it easier to hit opponents before they have a chance to fire. That feature would be overkill against the Islamic State, which does not have an air force nor any means to hit sophisticated aircraft flying at high altitude.

"I'd send them down in a heartbeat because they're very, very good"

US Air Force test pilot Raven LeClair said a test conducted last week, when the F-35 successfully used a missile to destroy a flying drone, helps prove it's ready for combat.

"It's been said you don't really have a fighter until you can actually hit a target," LeClair said, adding that "this successful test demonstrates the combat capability the F-35 will bring to the US military and our allies."

Tuesday's announcement comes 15 years after Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract to produce the fighter jets. Since then, the expected availability date has been pushed back several years, and the expected cost has skyrocketed nearly 70 percent.

These delays have caused several members of the international consortium dedicated to producing the jet and putting them in service in their air forces to consider backing out and cancelling their order.

VICE News recently reported that Canada may become the first country to cancel its order of F-35s, based on documents obtained that show the Canadian government setting up meetings with other military contractors to look into alternative fighter jets.

Italy has reduced its order by 30 percent, while Britain also slashed orders in 2010. Australia and Norway, meanwhile, have openly discussed the possibility of ending their contract. One Australian analyst told the Senate committee the F-35 is a "jackass of all trades and masterful of none."

Carlisle, however, heralded the potentially game-changing capabilities the F-35s offer.

"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 general said. And if a commander asked for the jets in the Middle East, "I'd send them down in a heartbeat because they're very, very good."

Reuters contributed to this report.