The Marines are planning to have the F-35 go operational in mid 2015 and the Navy is looking at late 2018 or so. Of course, “operational” means different things to different people. To you and me, operational means fully combat capable and ready to carry out any mission. To the F-35 program office and the individual services, operational means able to fly and, perhaps, carry out some functions, though not all – maybe not even close to all.
For example, the F-35’s gun (25mm GAU-22) is not scheduled to become operational until 2017, at the earliest, as reported by Defense News website (1).
"The gun on the F-35 joint strike fighter remains on schedule to go operational in 2017, the Pentagon said Wednesday."
“GAU-22 was planned to go operational with the block 3F software. That software is scheduled to go online in 2017, with low-rate initial production lot 9.”
The key point in this is that the gun’s operation is tied to software and the F-35’s software has been notorious for slipping its schedule. The odds that the 3F software will be ready as scheduled are very poor.
Reports indicate that the Marines will declare initial operational capability (IOC) with the Block 2B software which reportedly includes 89% of the code needed for full functionality. While 89% may sound pretty good, recognize that the 89% includes all the basic take-off and flying code. The question you should be asking is how much of the actual weapons capability is included in that 89%? Is it 10%? 50%? Who knows? We know it doesn’t include a gun. We know it doesn’t include the full sensor fusion that is supposed to be the “magic” of the F-35. What else is not included? I strongly suspect that it’s most of the weapons and combat capability.
Various GAO and DOT&E reports suggest software delays of a year or more are coming, as regards IOC.
So, will the F-35 be operational for the Marines in 2015? Well, as an infamous person once said, “It depends what the definition of is, is.” Operational depends on what your definition of operational is.
(1) "F-35 Program Office: Gun Remains On Schedule", Aaron Mehta,