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Navy plans at-sea testing of F-35C in October

During the test period, the team will evaluate the aircraft's ability to launch and recover from the carrier.
An F-35C joint strike fighter makes an arrested landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz last November.


WASHINGTON — The US Navy is planning at-sea testing of the carrier variant joint strike fighter in the first few weeks of October aboard the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, according to several sources. 

The upcoming sea trials will mark the second phase of developmental testing for the Lockheed Martin-made F-35C. During the test period, the team will evaluate the aircraft's ability to launch and recover from the carrier, and its performance in suboptimal conditions and during night operations. 

The Navy conducted initial sea trials with the fighter jet aboard the carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) off the coast of Southern California in November. During the testing period, the Navy completed 124 catapult launches and arrested landings with zero missed arrestments, service spokeswoman Sylvia Pierson said Thursday. Because the aircraft performed so well, the test team decided to conduct night operations, an unprecedented feat during the first at-sea period of any naval aircraft since the F-4 era, Pierson said. 

Pierson characterized the November trials as "history-making," adding that the team completed all test goals ahead of schedule.

"Testers also accelerated the F-35C program test and evaluation objectives by six months as they completed all 2014 carrier-based threshold test goals ahead of schedule, developed a large amount of the initial aircraft launch and recovery bulletins, and paved the way for F-35 fifth generation fighters to deliver an unprecedented stealth-at-sea capability to the carrier air wing," she said. 

The initial tests also qualified the four test pilots to fly the aircraft in at-sea test events, Pierson noted. 

The news of the upcoming testing comes amid indications budget pressures and competing priorities could drive the Navy to purchase fewer of the planes per year in the 2020s. The current plan is to purchase around 20 F-35Cs annually during that decade, but one top service official suggested that number could fall. 

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford suggested earlier this year that the Pentagon is weighing whether to stick to its plan to buy 2,443 F-35s overall.  

"Given the evolving defense strategy and the latest Defense Planning Guidance, we are presently taking the newest strategic foundation and analyzing whether 2,443 aircraft is the correct number," Dunford wrote in response to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

The F-35C is expected to become operational by 2018, when the Navy will stand up an operational squadron with 10 F-35Cs and trained pilots. 

The carrier variant of the joint strike fighter will be the last model to become operational: The Marine Corps declared initial operational capability on its vertical takeoff and landing F-35B earlier this summer, and the Air Force plans to declare its conventional takeoff and landing F-35A ready to go in the fall of 2016.