U.S. Air Force says plans test F-35 deployment this month

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada The U.S. Air Force will deploy four Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets to a different U.S. air base this month as it assesses whether the new warplane can be declared combat-ready by August as planned, a senior officer told Reuters on Thursday.

Major General Jay Silveria, who heads the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, said the F-35 jets would be sent from the Nevada base to Mountain Home Air Force Base in southwestern Idaho later this month.

The deployment would include pilots, mechanics, spare parts, equipment and the plane’s computerized logistics system to test the ability to deploy the plane for combat, he said.

The test would help the Air Force assess its ability to send the jets to other locations and ensure that they can be repaired and maintained, Silveria said.

“What we’re trying to do is exercise the deployment concepts and to learn from maintenance and learn from (operations),” Silveria said.

Like any warplane, maintenance of the F-35 requires specialized tools and materials, and it was critical that all those tools travel with the jet when it deployed, he said.

Silveria said the test deployment was part of an assessment of whether an initial squadron of F-35 jets was ready for combat. He said the warfare center was due to deliver that “operational readiness assessment” to General Hawk Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, in July.

Carlisle would use the assessment to help decide whether an initial squadron of F-35A fighter jets was ready for combat.

Silveria, a pilot who also flies the F-35, said the 12 F-35s based at Nellis Air Force Base were performing well in regular exercises with other aircraft, and had proven their ability to share data and communicate with fourth-generation jets.

He said the jets were now also able to share data within a formation of four F-35 jets flying together – a capability he experienced during a flight in the past week.

The Air Force hoped to declare that it had an “initial operational capability” of F-35s between August and December.

The U.S. Marine Corps declared an initial squadron of 10 of its F-35B model jets ready for combat last July. The F-35B can take off from shorter runways and land like a helicopter,

Two Air Force F-35s are slated to have their first international deployment when they fly to Britain in July to participate in two British air shows.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Paul Tait)

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