The USAF just announced IOC (Initial Operational Capability) on their F-35A’s. While the USAF may be celebrating, many think there is a long road ahead for the Joint Strike Fighter.

60 F-35’s a year. That’s the number ACC General Hawk Carlisle wants to buy annually now that the F-35A has gone IOC. The Air Force announced, as expected on Tuesday, that the 34th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base had met the minimum requirements to be operationally capable. Now the concern is how many F-35’s can come off the production line–and how many Congress is willing to fund.

The USAF has requested to buy 43 for fiscal year 2017.

“My concern is buy rate,” the head of the Air Combat Command told reporters. “I need more faster, to replace aging aircraft, to get to a more economic order quantity.”

Way back before the numerous delays and problems began to mount for the JSF, the original plans for the F-35 called for much larger annual purchases. The Pentagon had to step back on its annual purchase commitment because the 5th Generation fighter was simply not making head way. Delays and cost overruns in the JSF program have also made the program a lighting rod for critics.

Detractors were still skeptical of the program, even in the wake of the 2 August IOC announcement.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), Senate Armed Services Chairman and no friend of the F-35, called the USAF’s IOC announcement “another important milestone in the Joint Strike Fighter program.”

But, he added: “The road ahead remains long.”

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IOC is the minimum capability required to send the aircraft over to an operational war zone. With the F-35A now declared IOC, the USAF has 12 aircraft at the minimum level of combat capability. Additionally, only 77 F-35’s have been delivered to the USAF through the end of 4th quarter 2015. The full order calls for 1763 aircraft through the year 2037. IOC is a small but much needed start for the maligned program.

On another positive note, the program has seen good news from a recent operational detachment, including reports that it might be too stealthy for its own good. The IOC announcement and these latest reports are hopefully the start of a string good news for the 5th Generation fighter.

“Our Airmen have worked tirelessly to make sure our aircraft are combat ready: meeting challenges head-on and completing all the required milestones,” said Col. David Lyons, the 388th Fighter Wing commander. “We’re very proud that the Air Force has declared us combat ready and we’re prepared to take this aircraft wherever it’s needed in support of our national defense.”

Top Photo image: F-35A Lightning II aircraft receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., during a flight from England to the U.S. The fighters were returning to Luke AFB, Ariz., after participating in the world’s largest air show, the Royal International Air Tattoo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown)

This article was originally published on Fighter Sweep and written by Joe Ruzicka