March 1 (UPI) -- The U.S. Navy has declared the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter combat-ready -- the last of the three military branches to reach the status for the single-seat jet.
The carrier capable Navy variant of the F-35 Lightning II, has "met all requirements" to achieve initial operational capability, according to Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller III, commander of Naval Air Forces, and Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, in a news release Thursday.
"The F-35C is ready for operations, ready for combat and ready to win," Miller said. "We are adding an incredible weapon system into the arsenal of our Carrier Strike Groups that significantly enhances the capability of the joint force."
The Navy's first F-35C squadron, Strike Fighter Squadron 147, completed aircraft carrier qualifications aboard USS Carl Vinson and received Safe-For-Flight Operations Certification.
To receive the certification, the squadron must be properly manned, trained and equipped to conduct assigned missions in support of fleet operations. The ship supporting the first squadron must also possess the proper infrastructure, qualifications and certifications.
VFA-147's first deployment is scheduled for 2021 aboard the Vinson, Military.com reported.
The F-35C is designed for Nimitz-class and Ford-class fleet carriers.
The Strike Fighter Squadron, known as Argonauts, will be based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
To accommodate the F-35C program, several facilities at the base were built or remodeled for specific requirements with regard to maintenance and training. The Marine Corps plans to transition four F-35C squadrons that will be assigned to carrier air wings for deployments.
The Navy plans to deactivate its F-35 squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton, Fla., and move operations to Lemoore.
"We're very proud of what our sailors have accomplished in the Joint Strike Fighter community," said Capt. Max McCoy, commodore of the U.S. Navy's Joint Strike Fighter Wing. "Their commitment to mission delivered fifth generation capability to the carrier air wing, making us more combat effective than ever before. We will continue to learn and improve ways to maintain and sustain F-35C as we prepare for first deployment."
Variants of the F-35 will replace the A-10 and F-16 for the U.S. Air Force, the F/A-18 for the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps, and fighters for at least 10 other countries.
The Navy was the last of the three U.S. services to declare the aircraft's combat-ready status. The Marine Corps's F-35B reached the status with short take-off and vertical landing in 2015. The Air Force's F-35A reached the status in 2016.
The F-35's combat debut came last year in the Middle East when Israel's variant conducted strikes as the Marine Corps' F-35B conducted its first strike in Afghanistan against the Taliban in September.
Last October, the F-35 variants worldwide were temporarily grounded after one of the aircraft crashed the month before but most were declared operational within days, and others were repaired before receiving the declaration.
In November, the U.S. Air Force's 388th Fighter Wing's 4th Fighter Squadron and 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit conducted combat exercises testing and evaluating their ability to operate the F-35A Lightning II under high-tempo conditions.
More than 320 aircraft have been delivered to the United States and international partners by Lockheed Martin. The estimated total lifetime cost the plane for the United States alone is $1.4 trillion.
Lockheed Martin in December announced the delivery of its 91st F-35 fighter plane in 2018, a 40 percent production increase over 2017. The deliveries included 54 F-35s for the United States, 21 for international partner nations and 16 for Foreign Military Sales customers.
"We congratulate the Department of the Navy on achieving Initial Operational Capability with its fleet of F-35Cs," said Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, in a statement. "As we celebrate this achievement demonstrating the progress of the F-35 program, we're also setting our sights forward to ensure the U.S. Navy is ready for its first F-35C deployment."