The largest buyer of America's most expensive weapons program just declared it ready for war.
"I am proud to announce this powerful new weapons system has achieved initial combat capability," US Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, said on a call with reporters.
"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," Carlisle said.
Of the sister-service branches, the Air Force has been the most bullish on Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II's combat capabilities.
Fun Fact: The F-35 actually runs on a money-based fuel.
The 15 Air Force F-35A jets, and 21 combat-mission-ready pilots from Hill Air Force Base's 34th Fighter Squadron, represent a significant breakthrough for the weapons program, which began development 15 years ago and has been offset by design flaws, cost overruns, and technical challenges.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program's executive officer, said that the Air Force's decision to declare the F-35A's initial operational capability (IOC) "sends a simple and powerful message to America's friends and foes alike, the F-35 can do its mission."
"The roads leading to IOC for both services were not easy and these accomplishments are tangible testaments to the positive change happening in the F-35 program," Bogdan said.
As the Air Force is buying nearly 70% of the fifth-generation jets being made domestically — 1,763 of 2,443 aircraft — the Air Force sets the economies of scale for the tri-service fighter, with each plane costing a cool $100 million.
Lockheed Martin, considered a bellwether for the US defense sector, is expected to generate nearly a fifth of its $50 billion in 2016 sales solely from the F-35 program.
In the company's latest quarter, the defense giant posted net sales in its aeronautics business up 6%, or $244 million — compared to the same period in 2015.
The Pentagon's top weapons supplier is also building the "jack of all trades" aircraft for the UK, Turkey, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Israel, Japan, and South Korea.
Behold, the F-35. | Lockheed Martin
Even though the Air Force is operating the oldest fleet in its history, it's not the first of the sister-service branches to declare its variant combat-ready.
Last summer, the US Marine Corps was the first of the military branches to declare initial operational capability for 10 F-35B jets.
"There were a lot of people out here in the press that said, 'Hey, the Marines are just going to declare IOC because it would be politically untenable not to do that," Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation, said during a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute on the readiness and future trajectory of Marine aviation.
"IOC in the Marine Corps means we will deploy that airplane in combat. That's not a decision I was gonna take lightly, nor Gen. Dunford," Davis said, referring to Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
The US Navy variant, the F-35C, is scheduled to reach IOC by February 2019.