By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Marine Corps plans to carry out a tough, separate "inspection" before declaring the first squadron of 10 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets ready for initial combat use, the Marine Corps' top aviator said on Wednesday.
Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lieutenant General Jon Davis told Reuters he was keeping close tabs on 13 items required to approve combat use of the jets, now ready after years of delays and cost overruns. He said he remained optimistic that the service would meet its July target date for the milestone.
"We're targeting July 15," Davis said in an interview. "We're hell-bent on getting this airplane into service correctly. We're not going to declare IOC unless they're ready and they can do all the things that they've said they can do."
The Marine Corps will be the first military service to certify an "initial operational capability" of the F-35, the Pentagon's biggest weapons program ever.
Pentagon officials say the $391 billion F-35 program is now meeting its schedule and driving costs slowly lower.
Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, who runs the F-35 program for the Pentagon, has said he is pushing for the program to complete all key requirements to certify IOC by July 1.
The stealthy fighter was designed to replace a dozen planes in use by the U.S. military and a number of U.S. allies that have already placed orders: Britain, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Israel.
Davis said the Marines planned to deploy the first F-35 squadron to Japan in January 2017, but it could respond to crises around the world as soon as the IOC declaration was made.
He said he planned to carry out an unprecedented "operational readiness inspection" before approving the first squadron for combat use, including academic tests for officers and enlisted personnel, simulator flights and test flights.
"I want to prove to people that we are very serious about this, and that we have no intention of putting an airplane in a combat theater that's not ready to go," he said, adding that the inspection would likely take "a couple of weeks."
He said the biggest issues still to be resolved included the purchase of sufficient spare parts to allow deployment of the new jets; completion of modifications to the first 10 jets to incorporate design changes; and additional work on software, mission data files and a few dozen test points.
Lockheed has delivered 33 of the total 340 F-35B jets the Marine Corps plans to buy, said the Pentagon's F-35 program office. The Marines also plan to buy 80 F-35 C-models for use on aircraft carriers.
In May, the Marine Corps will also carry out its first operational test aboard an amphibious warship, the USS Wasp. Six F-35 jets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), the first squadron that will be certified for combat use, and a training squadron will participate in the testing.
The testing will assess day and night takeoffs and landings; performance of the jets' Block 2B software; extended range operations; maintenance on board the ship; weapons loading by day and by night; and performance of the complex, automated logistics system called ALIS.
By July, the Marines will have over 50 trained F-35 pilots and more than 400 maintenance personnel, a spokesman said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio)