By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet will drop weapons and take part in a major U.S. military exercise this week for the first time, another milestone for the Pentagon's largest weapons program, Air Force officials said Monday.
The exercise, called "Green Flag West," tests the U.S. military's ability to engage in air-to-surface conflicts and helps get ground troops who pinpoint potential air strikes ready for combat.
Several F-35 A-model jets, along with a host of other warplanes and other weapons, will participate in the exercises.
General Herbert Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, told Reuters that exercises were an important way to expose weapons and pilots to more real-world battle scenarios.
"It's incredibly important that you've got to get past just the theoretical ... to get it into the fog and friction of dynamic environment that is changing rapidly," Carlisle said after an event hosted by the Air Force Association.
The Air Force has used aircraft equipped with F-35 sensors in past exercises, but this will be the first time that more "operationally representative" aircraft take part, he said.
Lockheed is developing three models of the aircraft for the U.S. military, eight countries that help fund its development, and three other nations. U.S. officials say the $391 billion weapons program has been meeting or exceeding its performance and cost targets since a major restructuring in 2011.
Carlisle said the Air Force was still working through some problems with how data from various radars and other sensors are fused and displayed to the pilot, but he expected the aircraft to perform well in the exercise.
"The airplane's pretty impressive," Carlisle said. He said the jet's radar-evading capabilities and large number of sensors would help improve the performance of all other U.S. aircraft in a fight, much like the F-22 does now.
The Marine Corps is expected to declare an initial squadron of 10 F-35B jets ready for initial combat use in July, with the Air Force to follow suit in August 2016.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)