By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Marine Corps' top aviator flew to an Arizona air base this week as part of a final effort to certify the combat-readiness of an initial squadron of 10 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35B fighter jets, their pilots and technicians.
Marine Corps officials were due to brief Lieutenant General Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, on a week-long review which included operational and simulator flights in five core mission areas, an inspection of the maintenance department, and academics for both pilots and technicians.
If Davis is satisfied, he will brief Marine Corps Commandant General Joseph Dunford, who will decide whether to declare an "initial operational capability," or IOC, of the stealthy new jets, a key milestone for the $391 billion weapons project.
Officials at Lockheed and the Pentagon see the expected Marine Corps declaration as evidence that the F-35 program has turned the corner after years of cost overruns and schedule delays.
Spokesman Major Paul Greenberg had no immediate comment on the results of this week's inspection or Davis' review.
With Dunford's approval, the Marine Corps would become the first U.S. military service that could deploy the new jets overseas to drop laser-guided bombs, provide close-air support and carry out other military missions, if the need arose.
Barring unexpected needs, the Marines plan to deploy the first F-35 squadron to Japan in early 2017.
Davis told Reuters last month that he was "very confident" about the combat readiness of the Lockheed program, but said he was keeping "a careful eye" on spare parts supplies given cuts in congressional funding.
Lockheed spokesman Michael Rein said the company had resolved the spare parts concerns ahead of the 134-item operational readiness inspection that Davis ordered.
Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told Congress in a report dated June 22 that the program had been executing on cost and schedule since a 2012 restructuring, and was "on the right track" despite some lingering technical software challenges.
Kendall said all but eight specific software capabilities required by the Marine Corps were on track to be completed before the combat use declaration, and the Marines had decided to address those shortcomings in the next software iteration.
Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 program, said the Marines had received all the software capabilities promised before the readiness inspection. He said the final version of the F-35 development software, Block 3F, had already started flight testing, he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Christian Plumb)