American F-35 stealth fighters have been used in a combat operation for the first time, officials said, marking a major milestone for the most expensive plane in history.
Thursday’s mission took place against Taliban targets in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, when the F-35s flew from the USS Essex amphibious assault ship.
The planes deployed were the F-35B variant, used by the 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,” US Naval Forces Central Command said in a statement.
Officials did not say how many planes took part in the operation, but the F-35 flies in pairs or larger groups.
Israel — one of the F-35 program’s partner nations — said in May that it had used its newly acquired F-35s in combat operations, becoming the first country to do so.
Launched in the early 1990s, the F-35 is considered the most expensive weapons system in US history, with an estimated cost of some $400 billion and a goal to produce 2,500 aircraft in the coming years.
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 radar-dodging 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.
So far, the US military has taken delivery of 245 F-35s, most of them to the Air Force.