For the first time since their inception, American F-35B Joint Strike Fighters have entered into combat operations, according to statements released by Pentagon officials on Thursday, September 27.
While details remain sparse, it has been confirmed that at least one Marine Corps F-35B took off from the USS Essex amphibious assault ship and delivered ordnance on a fixed Taliban target somewhere in Afghanistan at some point within the 24 hours prior to the announcement on Thursday. Those same F-35Bs were also involved in intelligence and surveillance operations over Somalia within the past week, with multiple outlets reporting that the controversial fighters were standing by to engage with enemy targets for the first time if called upon to do so.
In the minds of many, this operation has the potential to serve as the watershed moment between years of F-35 discussion and debate and a new era in which the oft-touted fighter can either live up to expectations or prove its detractors right.
This does not mark the first time any F-35 has ever seen combat operations, as Israel was the first nation to put their Lockheed Martin fifth generation jets into the fight over Syria earlier this year. This is, however, the first time the F-35 has ever seen combat under the flag of the nation that has championed (and largely funded) its development and production — the United States.
The F-35 has widely been promoted as either the future of combat aviation or a textbook example of how not to develop advanced military platforms. Its complex data management systems, vast sensor array and state of the art stealth characteristics make it what many consider to be the most advanced fighter ever to take to the skies, but a slew of technical setbacks, delays and cost overruns continue to dominate headlines pertaining to the program, with the U.S. Air Force even announcing recently that they may need to cancel large portions of their standing order for the fighter unless the government and Lockheed Martin are able to reduce its operating costs by a whopping 40 percent. Italy also recently announced plans to stop ordering more F-35s upon the completion of their existing order, citing similar concerns about funding its operation.
Despite concerns about costs, which are projected to exceed $1.5 trillion over the F-35s operational lifespan, defense officials have long touted not only its small radar signature, but its robust target acquisition data management systems that allow the aircraft to serve as hub for information relayed from any number of sources. This gives F-35 pilots a more developed and far reaching awareness of the battle space around them than any jet that’s come before it, allowing the F-35 to engage targets from beyond the horizon, and well before most fourth generation aircraft are even aware of its presence.