The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program will begin its formal operational test and evaluation process with the goal of achieving full rate production by late 2019, the joint program office announced Dec. 6.

The Joint Strike Fighter Operational Test Team (JOTT) will conduct the formal IOT&E effort with its international partners under the oversight of the independent Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), the JPO said Thursday. Some pre-IOT&E events already occurred in 2018, including cold weather operations, weapons demonstrations, suitability deployments, and lower threat missions. f-35 ice runway

“From now and continuing through late summer 2019 all three F-35 Air System variants (A/B/C) will be field tested, under realistic combat conditions, for the purposes of determining the weapons systems’ operational effectiveness and operational suitability for combat,” Joe DellaVedova, F-35 joint program office spokesman, said in an emailed statement. All of the test events will be conducted at U.S. military testing ranges and installations. Once testing is complete, the Pentagon will have the required data to inform a Milestone C decision and move to full rate production by the end of 2019, he added.

Formal IOT&E will test the system and find areas for improvement “in the most stressing operationally representative environments,” the joint program office said. Once completed, DOT&E will analyze the testing’s data and prepare a report for Congress and the Secretary of Defense.

F-35 Program Executive Officer Vice Adm. Mat Winter called the start of formal IOT&E “a milestone more than 18 years in the making” in an emailed statement on Thursday.  “While aircraft are in operational test, the F-35 Joint Program Office will continue to support the delivery of phased capability improvements and modernization of the air system.”

Lockheed Martin [LMT], which serves as the prime contractor and developer of the F-35, said it will fully support the Defense Department serving as the lead for the former IOT&E effort. “With more than 340 F-35s operating from 15 bases around the world and delivering exceptional capabilities to the warfighter, we are confident in the F-35 weapon systems’ operational performance, capability and suitability today and for decades to come,” the company said in an emailed statement.