Air Combat Command chief Gen. Hawk Carlisle said Tuesday the F-35 is “combat ready,” and he would have no reservations about sending it into battle. Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, Carlisle declared Initial Operational Capability for the F-35A, saying the 388th Fighter Wing and the associated 419th Reserve Wing have the requisite number of planes (15 versus the six necessary), maintainers, and trained pilots—and have demonstrated their capabilities in realistic exercises—such that he is “comfortable” sending the fighters anywhere that a regional combatant commander asks for them. Whether they are requested will be up to the commanders, Carlisle said, but he does expect that “sometime in the next 18 months” the jets will deploy to Europe and the Pacific theater, and that in any event they will soon be “in the rotation” to deploy wherever USAF operates.
The F-35As have the requisite “basic capability” in offensive and defensive counter-air, interdiction, electronic warfare, electronic attack, and “basic” close air support, electronic warfare/electronic attack, and “limited” suppression of enemy air defenses, Carlisle said. “The Operational Test folks and the line pilots are comfortable taking it into a … contested environment,” meaning against tough air defenses, Carlisle said, and he’s accepted their judgment. He also said that not sending the F-35 immediately into combat won’t mean there’s anything wrong with it, but that it has to be suitable to the mission. When the F-22 was declared IOC in 2005, Carlisle said, USAF was rebuffed by higher authorities from deploying it right away because it might be considered a “provocative” gesture; an assessment Carlisle disagreed with. In his opinion, Carlisle said, deploying F-22s and F-35s is “a good thing” because it’s “reassuring to our allies and partners”—many of whom are anxious to either buy the new fighter or work with it and develop tactics around it—“and a deterrent to our adversaries.”