Goalposts moved for F-35C IOC

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Ethan Soto/US Navy

The Commander, Naval Air Forces and the US Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation jointly announced that the F-35C Lightning II met all requirements and achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on February 28. The declaration means that all three variants of the Joint Strike Fighter have now achieved IOC.

In order to declare IOC, the first operational squadron must be properly manned, trained and equipped to conduct assigned missions in support of fleet operations. This is defined as having at least 30% of its planned unit establishment of aircraft. The US Navy’s first F-35C unit, Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) ‘Argonauts’ has at least ten Block 3F, F-35Cs. It must also have the requisite spares, supply chain and a functional Autonomic Logistic Information System.

The Argonauts achieved its safe-for-flight operations certificate on December 12, 2018 after it completed aircraft carrier qualifications aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). The certificate confirms that the squadron is manned with personnel qualified to implement maintenance and safety programmes in support of fleet operations. All transitioning Navy squadrons are required to complete this certification prior to independently conducting flight operations on a new aircraft. As well as the above, the ship from which the jet will operate must possess the proper infrastructure, qualifications and certifications.

Finally, the F-35 Joint Program Office, industry, and Naval Aviation must demonstrate that all procedures, processes and policies are in place to sustain operations. F-35C production lags significantly behind that of the F-35A and F-35B, and only three dozen or so have been delivered to the Navy. IOC was supposed to be conditional upon the completion of IOT&E (Initial Operational Test and Evaluation), which is being undertaken at Edwards Air Force Base, California by the US Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 9 (VX-9) ‘Vampires’, but, for some reason, that requirement has been dispensed with. Commencement of the IOT&E effort slipped by nine months, so a conservative estimate would project the completion date as being January or February 2020 as opposed to the earlier estimate of April 2019. However, the duration of IOT&E has been cut to seven months meaning it is scheduled to end in September 2019. The actual date is anybody’s guess because of continuing problems with certifying software for the jet. the Autonomic Logistics Information System, for instance, is so problematical that the Air Force is developing alternative software.

The delay in completing IOT&E is not as significant as it may appear. VFA-147’s first cruise with its new mount is not scheduled until 2021.