Yesterday, Tuesday, Aug. 2, the Air Force declared the F-35A had reached IOC - initial operational capability. This means that the Air Force can now send the Air Force's first F-35 squadron, the 34th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, into combat operations anywhere in the world.
IOC = "Basic" Functions
While these aircraft are, in theory, operational, they still lack at least a portion of the F-35's promised capabilities. According to officials, in order to reach IOC, the USAF only needed 12 combat-ready jets capable of global deployment able to provide basic close-air support, air interdiction, and limited suppression and destruction of enemy air defense missions. They also required were pilots, maintainers, and equipment to support the squadron. In a press conference announcing the IOC, Air Combat Command (ACC) head General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle declined to comment on the specific differences between "basic close-air support" and "full CAS capability".
The Road To F-35s In Combat
Back in July General Carlisle said that while it would be possible to deploy the F-35 to combat zones once it had reached IOC, the actual deployment of the jet would occur in stages. After achieving IOC, the jet would then deploy to Red Flag exercises, then as a theater security asset to Europe and the Pacific region before more hostile areas. While it likely will be deployed to the Middle East, that is not likely to happen before 2017, when the aircraft receives its 3F software update giving it full combat capability.
More F-35 Squadrons Coming Soon
Now that the F-35 is officially operational, more squadrons will be coming to Air Force bases across the country.
The second operational home for the F-35 is planned to be Burlington Air National Guard Base in Vermont. This will be the first Air National Guard base to receive the F-35, and it is expected to receive 18 of the aircraft - replacing the F-16s currently stationed there.
The third base to receive the Joint Strike Fighter will be Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska, which will receive two complete squadrons worth (24) of aircraft. These are expected to be delivered around 2020, and will be bringing advanced combat capability to the area.