The US Air Force announced today that the F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation fighter aircraft is "combat ready." According to General Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, the aircraft met all its key criteria for being declared operational. The declaration comes after the F-35A made its first air-to-air kill on July 28 by engaging and destroying a target drone using a heat-seeking missile.

Carlisle says that the F-35A and its infrastructure are now fit for combat. Airmen have been trained to carry out basic close air support, interdiction, and limited suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses with an operational squadron of 12 to 24 aircraft; can conduct missions using the F-35A's weapons and missions systems; and have the logistics and operational elements to get the job done.

Today's announcement follows on the first air-to-air kill by an F-35A over the skies off the coast of California. On July 28, US Air Force test pilot Major Raven LeClair fired an AIM-9X short-range heat-seeking missile from his F-35A's external wing at an aerial drone target flying in a restricted military sea test range airspace.

The Air Force confirmed that the F-35A identified, targeted, and destroyed the drone using its tracking system that allowed the pilot to verify targeting information using the high off-boresight capability of the helmet mounted display. When LeClair launched the AIM-9X missile, it acquired and intercepted the target as it's designed to do.

Before the successful shot, LeClair fired an AIM-120C at another target, but this drone was beyond visual range and the missile self-destructed for safety reasons.

"It's been said you don't really have a fighter until you can actually hit a target and we crossed that threshold with the first air-to-air weapon delivery of an AIM-9X," says LeClair."This successful test demonstrates the combat capability the F-35 will bring to the U.S. Military and our allies [and] represents the culmination of many years of careful planning by combined government and contractor teams. We want to ensure operators will receive the combat capability they need to execute their mission and return home safely – we cannot compromise or falter in delivering this capability."

The F-35A is the conventional takeoff version of the next-generation fighter being developed by Lockheed as a multi-role aircraft to replace a wide variety of warplanes. It's designed for both air superiority and for air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities to suppress enemy air defenses. In addition, it uses intelligent combat systems to provide unprecedented situational awareness of the battlespace.

In a statement, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, "I want to congratulate the U.S. Air Force on today's announcement that the F-35A has achieved initial operational capability. This is a significant milestone for an aircraft that will allow the U.S. to maintain the advantage of air superiority for years to come. I know that even after being declared combat ready, there is more work to do with this critical program, but the Air Force, Air Combat Command and the men and women of Hill Air Force Base should be proud of this major step forward for the F-35A."

The F-35A is now in service with the 34th Fighter Squadron of the 388th Fighter Wing, based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, which carried out a successful deployment in June to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho and a series of eight-aircraft sorties in mid-July.

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