The Marines are more aggressive than their sister services out of eagerness to replace aging F/A-18 Hornets, followed closely by the AV-8B Harriers, which will remain in service until 2030. “The F-35 is our country's best hedge against the ever-evolving and unknown threats posted by our adversaries,” says Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle, the service's top aviation officer.
But, by going first, the Marines are compromising on the capabilities initially inherent in their F-35 fleet. The 2B software will include basic close-air-support and interdiction capabilities as well as initial air-to-air and data-linking capabilities. Weapons included will be the AIM-120C7, Joint Direct Attack Munition and GBU-12 laser-guided, 500-lb. bomb, although the load is limited to the internal weapons bay; external stores are not included in the 2B release.
Italy is planning to buy the F-35B as is the U.K., which is participating in the flight-testing program with its aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force, by far the largest F-35 presumed user, has agreed to declare IOC with a much more limited software-and-weapons capability than originally planned.
The 12 F-35As (and trained pilots and maintainers) needed by the Air Force will support an IOC in December 2016, before the long-awaited 3F software package is fully tested. The Air Force had planned to wait for the 3F package because it allows for an expanded engagement envelope and more diverse weapons. Instead, the Air Force is moving ahead with the 3I package, which includes the basic weapons and envelope of the 2B used by the Marine Corps, but with updated processing hardware. “This [plan] is capability-based” and the 3I software satisfies the service's initial needs, says an Air Force spokeswoman. “We still believe we need 3F for full mission capability.”
The 3F package adds capabilities that are key to the F-35's core mission‚ such as multiship suppression, destruction of enemy air defenses and new air-to-air and air-to-ground modes. It also will include the full complement of weapons carried internally and externally. It is slated for inclusion on the low-rate initial-production (LRIP) 9 aircraft, and is expected for delivery at the end of the development program in 2017.
In testimony to Congress this spring, Bogdan said there is “moderate” risk in prime contractor Lockheed Martin delivering the 2B package in 2015, while he acknowledged more risk in meeting the 3F schedule two years later.
“The F-35 is a vital capability that the nation needs to stay ahead of adversary technological gains, and it provides the multirole capabilities that the anti-access and area-denial environment of the future will require,” said USAF Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff.
Lockheed Martin had fallen a few months behind in delivering on the 2B software release needed by the Marine Corps for IOC, but the package is now being tested in the lab. And, early flight trials have begun, according to Laura Siebert, a company spokeswoman. Flight-testing of the Block 3 capability is slated to begin within the next couple of months, she adds. Meanwhile, the Block 1 capability—suitable only for very basic flying—and the incremental step-up to 2A is being used for flight-training at Eglin AFB, Fla., and the first operational squadron of F-35Bs for the Marine Corps at Yuma, Ariz.