YUMA, Ariz., Nov. 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Defense Department is setting up its first squadron of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stealth jets to replace several military aircraft, officials said.
Officials said the U.S. Marine Corps Tuesday will re-designate a Hornet F/A-18 fighter jet squadron in Yuma, Ariz., as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 on Tuesday, the San Diego North Country Times reported.
The F-35 squadron's inaugural jet, a B-version designed to take off on short runways and land vertically, arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma Friday.
The $396 billion F-35 program is the Pentagon's most expensive and has been in development by Lockheed Martin since 2001.
Versions of the aircraft were developed for the Marines, the Air Force and the Navy.
The Air Force is testing and training on its version and the Navy is awaiting delivery of its first production tailhook model, North Country Times said.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave developers two years to fix technological and other problems on the Marine version or face cancellation of the project. The model was cleared in January.
"[We] righted that ship," Col. Kevin Killea, who oversees aviation requirements for the Marine Corps, told the Times Friday.
The expanding number of trained F-35 pilots and the creation of the first operational squadron "tells me the program is progressing forward and meeting the time lines that the Marine Corps needs to transition out of the F/A-18 and the AV-8B," Killea said.
Officials said an F-35 is expected to arrive monthly until a full squadron is stationed at the base, sometime between late spring and early summer of 2013, the Yuma Sun said. The total transition is scheduled to be finished by 2020.
Five squadrons with 16 aircraft each will be stationed at Yuma, along with one operational test-and-evaluation squadron of eight aircraft, the Sun reported.
"Being the first operational F-35 squadron in the world is another historic moment in Marine aviation, and the Green Knights are proud to be chosen to lead the way into the future of military aviation," VMFA-121 commanding officer Lt. Col. Jeffrey Scott said.