"It will move to the right," Lieutenant General Herbert Carlisle, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, told a conference hosted by Credit Suisse and defense consultant Jim McAleese.
Carlisle said the new radar-evading warplane built by Lockheed Martin Corp would reach "initial operational capability" only after achieving certain milestones, including software development, operational test and establishment of a crew of maintainers, Reuters reports.
Air Force officials now expected those milestones to be achieved "later in the decade" given the Pentagon's plan to postpone orders for 179 planes over the next five years, a move projected to save $15.1 billion through fiscal 2017.
The slowdown in production has been widely expected to result in delays in operational use of the new aircraft, which is being developed by the United States and eight international partners.
But Carlisle's comments provided the first clear indication that the Air Force will not start using its new warplanes until after 2016 - a fact that could be problematic for some of the eight initial development partners, who are counting on the new plane to replace their existing fighter fleets.
The delay could also have ramifications for U.S. efforts to sell the radar-evading supersonic jet to other foreign countries.
Carlisle said the Air Force would carry out service life extensions and add capabilities to existing F-16 fighters to bridge the gap, but had not changed its plan to buy a total of 1,763 F-35 fighters over the next decades.
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