F-35 clears major hurdle as US air force declares it combat-ready

After years of cost overruns and delays, the U.S. air force says the version of the F-35 fighter plane that Canada was planning to buy is ready for combat.

Liberals have yet to signal which jet they will buy to replace Canada's ageing CF-18s

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on display at naval yard in Maryland in January. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

After years of cost overruns, delays, and political headaches, the U.S. air force says the version of the F-35 fighter plane that Canada was planning to buy is ready for combat.

The surprise announcement Tuesday represents a big step forward for the stealth fighter, and comes less than two months after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the controversial plane was "far from working."

Speaking at the Pentagon, Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the head of the U.S. air force, admitted there are things the F-35A still can't do, such as sharing some information between planes, which will be addressed in the coming months and years.

There are also some technical fixes that need to be made, such as making the ejection seat safe for lighter pilots.

"We are not to full operational capability," Carlisle, head of the U.S. air combat command, told reporters. "We will evolve and continue to improve it just like we have every airplane in history."

But he was effusive in his praise for the fighter jet, and said he is prepared to send it to Syria or any other war zone if needed.

"I would deploy it to a combat zone for the missions that it is uniquely qualified to do and I would have all the confidence in the world that this airplane could conduct operations," Carlisle said.

There are three versions of the F-35. The most common is the F-35A, which the previous Conservative government had planned to buy before pushing the reset button in December 2012.

The F-35B and F-35C are primarily for the U.S. marines and U.S. navy, respectively, and have special takeoff and landing equipment. The marines declared the F-35B combat ready last year, while the U.S. navy's version is scheduled for August 2018.

The Liberals promised during last year's election campaign to hold an open competition to replace Canada's aging CF-18 fighter jets, but they also said they would not buy the F-35.

Trudeau appeared to double-down on that pledge in June when he told the House of Commons that the F-35 "does not work and is far from working."

The comments came after a report the government was considering whether to buy a rival jet, the Boeing Super Hornet, without a competition. The government says no decision has been made.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's office didn't directly respond to news of the F-35A being declared combat ready. Instead, spokeswoman Jordan Owens reiterated the need to replace Canada's aging CF-18 fighter jets sooner rather than later.

The government is consulting with industry, including F-35 maker Lockheed Martin, on possible replacements for Canada's CF-18s, Owens said in an email. "This information will inform a decision on a procurement path in the coming months."

But Conservative defence critic James Bezan said the prime minister's comments about the plane not working were "completely wrong," and that the F-35 becoming combat ready should force the Liberals to abandon their promise not to buy the plane.

"This shows this is a great capability," Bezan said. "It has to be considered to replace the CF-18s, despite their rhetoric during the election about not buying the F-35."

Bad news plagued the F-35's development for years after the previous Conservative government promised in July 2010 to buy 65 of the stealth fighters.

More recently, however, there has been a string of positive developments, including a number of passed tests as well as reports of declining costs.

The U.S. air force was widely expected to declare the F-35A combat ready sometime this month. But Jack Crisler, Lockheed Martin's vice-president of F-35 business development, said even he was surprised that it came on Tuesday.

"It's really demonstrating the maturity and effectiveness of the airplane," he said. "The data is starting to pile up that this aircraft is very effective."