American F-35 stealth fighters have been used in a combat operation for the first time, a defense official said, marking a major milestone for the most expensive weapons system in history.
The mission was conducted against Taliban targets in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province on Thursday, September 27, when more than one F-35 flew from the USS Essex (LHD 2) amphibious assault ship.
The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit is the first combat-deployed unit to replace the AV-8B Harrier with the F-35B Lightning II, and F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 are currently aboard on the Wasp-class USS Essex as part of Essex Amphibious Ready Group.
“It was a successful strike,” the official told AFP.
The planes deployed were the F-35B variant used by the U.S. Marine Corps and capable of taking off from a short runway and landing vertically. The Air Force and Navy have their own models.
“During this mission, the F-35B conducted an air strike in support of ground clearance operations, and the strike was deemed successful by the ground force commander,” U.S. Naval Forces Central Command later said in a statement.
Officials did not say how many aircraft took part in the operation, but the F-35 typically flies in pairs or larger groups.
The use of F-35s was well flagged, with CNN on Tuesday reporting unnamed U.S. defense officials as saying that aircraft aboard the USS Essex could within days conduct airstrikes over Afghanistan.
In May the Israeli military said that it had used its newly acquired F-35s in combat operations, becoming the first country to do so.
With a development program beginning in the early 1990s, the F-35 Lightning II is considered the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history, with an estimated cost of some $400 billion and a goal to produce 2,500 aircraft in the coming years.
But, once servicing and maintenance costs for the F-35 are factored in over the aircraft’s lifespan through 2070, overall program costs are expected to rise to $1.5 trillion.
Proponents tout the F-35’s stealth technology, supersonic speeds, close air support capabilities, airborne agility and a massive array of sensors giving pilots unparalleled access to information.
But the program has faced numerous delays, cost overruns and setbacks, including a mysterious engine fire in 2014 that led commanders to temporarily ground the planes.
Thursday’s use of F-35s was not the first time that America’s most complex weapons platforms were used in Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force F-22 stealth fighters were used in Afghanistan for the first time in November 2017 when Operation Jagged Knife targeting Taliban funding was launched.
With reporting from AFP. This post was updated on September 27 with the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command statement and edited for clarity.