The Marine Corps' F-35B joint strike fighter jet is expected to make its debut downrange in 2018.

Plans call for the Marine variant of the fighter jet to deploy aboard the amphibious assault ship Essex during a spring 2018 tour to the U.S. Central Command theater of operations, according to a Navy official.

The Essex will be the third gator to operate the F-35B. Marines did F-35B sea trials aboard the Wasp last year. An F-35B squadron is also expected to head to the Pacific aboard the America, the Navy's newest amphib, in 2018.

The F-35B is unique in that it can take off and land vertically. It can take apart the most sophisticated air defense systems, including surface-to-air missiles and enemy fighters.

For terrorists on the ground, the F-35B offers the promise of a quick and inglorious death.

By 2032, the Marine Corps expects to purchase 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs, which have tail hooks that allow them to land on Navy flattops. The 420 F-35s will replace the Marines' fleet of F/A-18 Hornets, EA-6B Prowlers and AV-8B Harrier jump jets.

In July, the head of Marine Aviation indicated that the F-35B could deploy to fight the Islamic State if needed.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis told reporters that the Marine Corps' two F-35B squadrons are expected to go to sea starting in the spring of 2018, but the F-35B is "ready to go right now" if called upon to fly combat missions.

"If we think we need to do that, we will," Davis said after speaking at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington. "We're ready to do that."

The Marine Corps declared in July 2015 that the F-35B was ready to fly operations, but the plane still needs several improvements. Until it gets new software staring next year, it will be able to carry only AIM-120 missiles and certain laser- and GPS-guided bombs, said Jesse Sloman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington.

Even with those limitations, Sloman said he believes the F-35B is ready for combat and it will open a host of new options for the Marine Air-Ground Task Force.

"The F-35B is lightyears ahead of the AV-8B Harrier and will provide Marine commanders with something entirely new--a low-observable platform capable of operating from an amphibious ship," he said.

Davis has pushed back on criticism that the Marines bowed to political pressure in declaring the F-35B had reached initial operational capability before the plane was mature enough to deploy.

"IOC in the Marine Corps means we will deploy that airplane in combat," he said in July.

F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 took part in July's Exercise Red Flag, the Air Force's top air-to-air combat training exercise.

Defense News reporter Christoper P. Cavas contributed to this story.

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