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An F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter takes off on a training sortie at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in this March 6, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force photo/Randy Gon/Handout

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By Idrees Ali and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday declared an initial squadron of Lockheed Martin Corp F-35A fighter jets ready for combat, marking a major milestone for a programme that has faced cost overruns and delays.

The move is another achievement for the $379 billion (283.79 billion pounds) programme, the Pentagon's largest weapons project. The Air Force follows the U.S. Marine Corps, which declared a first squadron of F-35s ready for combat in July 2015.

"The U.S. Air Force decision to make the 15 F-35As at Hill Air Force Base combat ready sends a simple and powerful message to America's friends and foes alike - the F-35 can do its mission," F-35 programme chief, Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, said in a statement.

Officials say the F-35 will give the U.S. military the ability to detect enemy aircraft and other threats far beyond current ranges, allowing the jets to strike targets and disappear long before they are detected.

The U.S. Air Force plans to buy a total of 1,763 F-35A conventional takeoff and landing jets in coming years and will operate the largest F-35 fleet in the world.

The Pentagon's F-35 program office on Monday announced that the F-35A had launched an AIM-9X air-to-air missile to hit and "kill" a target simulating a drone over a military test range off the California coast on July 28.

"After launch, the missile successfully acquired the target and followed an intercept flight profile before destroying the drone, achieving the first F-35 air-to-air kill or 'Boola Boola,' which is the traditional radio call made when a pilot shoots down a drone," the program office said.

The same F-35 pilot who hit the drone also used an internally carried AIM-120C missile against another target drone that was beyond visual range, telling it to self-destruct right before impact, the programme office said in a statement.

Lockheed is building three models of the F-35 Lightning II for the U.S. military and 10 countries that have already ordered the jets: Britain, Australia, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, the Netherlands, Israel, South Korea and Japan.

"It will provide airmen unprecedented lethality and survivability, a capability they will use to defend America and our allies for decades to come," Lockheed Martin said in a statement.

The Pentagon's F-35 programme office said it remained in negotiations with Lockheed about long-delayed contracts for the next two batches of F-35 jets, deals worth about $15 billion.

"We're seeking a fair deal for the F-35 enterprise and industry," said F-35 programme spokesman Joe DellaVedova.

The programme, first launched in 2001, has made strides in recent years after huge cost overruns and technical problems that sent the project cost up by nearly 70 percent.

Earlier problems with the fighter jet included issues with the radar software and complications which increased the risk of neck injury to lightweight pilots when they ejected from the aircraft.

Industry and U.S. defence officials say they are working hard to continue driving down the cost of the new warplanes to around $85 million per plane by 2019, as well as the cost of operating the jets.

"The programme is not doing everything they wanted it to do... But they're at a point now where it is stabilizing and so it is progress," said Todd Harrison, a defence analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by David Alexander.; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Andrew Hay)

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