The F-35 Squadron at Yuma: The Next Phase Begins


2012-11-18  by Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Dateline: Yuma, Arizona

Later this month the first 2 F-35 Bravos are arriving at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma.

As the future home of five F-35 JSF operational squadrons of 16 aircraft each and one operational test and evaluation squadron of eight aircraft totaling 88 aircraft, these squadrons will replace Yuma’s four existing squadrons consisting of 56 AV-8B Harriers.

By early next year, the full complement of 16 F-35 Bs will have arrived.  For the USMC, this is the beginning of the next 100 years of Naval Aviation.

It is also the ultimate response to the terrorists who blew up 1/10 of the Harrier force.  

The USMC will give them back and powerhouse combination of the Harrier, the F-18 and the Prowler with new C2 and Information Warfare capabilities. 

Here they are following the model of the Osprey roll out.

Once the aircraft was ready to fly and to be part of a training effort, the Marines began to use it.

From the left, Commandant of the Marine Corps General James F. Amos, U.S. Senator John McCain (Az.) and Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Jeffrey Scott stand near an F-35B at Marine Corp Air Station Yuma, Ariz. after the squadron’s re-designation ceremony Nov. 20. Credit: Lockheed Martin

They understood that the capabilities of the aircraft would be rolled out over time, and further aspects of that capability evolved over time. They also understood with the Osprey that determining how best to use the aircraft and how those operations which affect overall Marine Corps operations had to be determined in practice, not in an abstract, linear evaluation process.

This is why the Osprey at the 5 year deployment mark is essentially seen as a different aircraft in terms of how the Marines can and do use the aircraft.  They have also learned how the physical aspects of the platform affect operations, and, in turn, shape concepts of operations.  Only with real world experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, off the Shores of Tripoli, or in exercises such as Bold Alligator 2012, would the evolution of the aircraft be shaped.

Although an even more significant addition to the Marine Corps and its con-ops, the F-35 Bravo is being approached in a similar manner.

As the baseline aircraft becomes capable of entering the training and squadron evaluation process, the Marines can then determine how best to evolve the core capabilities of the aircraft.

As “Turbo” Tomassetti, the Deputy 33rd Fighter Wing commander has put it,

“Once we have the basic aircraft flying and the core operational capabilities enabled, we need to shift from a block development process determined by engineers have an operators determination of next steps needed.  This is especially true given the unique fleet qualities of forthcoming F-35 operations.”

(For a look at the baseline F-35 aircraft see the following:

While the squadron is being established at Yuma, the USAF will begin taking planes at Hill Air Force Base and starting to put together their first F-35 squadrons.

And during all of this training at Eglin, and further evaluations at Edwards AFB and Pax River Naval Air Station will continue.

This process underscores a basic reality of the F-35 as a combat system.

Rather than looking at the evolution of the program in Block steps, it is better to understand it in terms of operational clusters.

  1. To date, the software and systems of the F-35 to fly the aircraft have been steadily put in place.
  2. Then the core combat systems are being plugged into the software upgradeable aircraft.
  3. The weapons are being certified at Edwards AFB to add strike and defense capabilities to the aircraft.
  4. Then the aircraft is ready to deploy.

After initial deployments, the aircraft will evolve as operators determine best approaches to getting incremental yet significant combat value out of the aircraft.

And this is why the collocation of the squadron with MAWTS is so crucial.

MAWTS is where the Marines develop tactics and training for the various aviation assets working with overall Marine Corps operations.  With the Marines integrating aviation into overall operations is the core operational reality. At MAWTS, the Marines shape their approach to innovation as they move forward, notably with new systems, or newly configured systems.

The squadron at Yuma will shake down the aircraft and get it operational.

First Flight of BF-21, USMC Tail VK-01, Yuma F-35, Pilot Billie Flynn, October 24, 2012. Credit; Lockheed Martin

As they do so, the pilots using the plane will work closely with MAWTS in shaping the new tactics and training associated with the aircraft.  Because this aircraft is a bundle of Harrier, Prowler, and F-18 capabilities with its own revolutionary foundation to doing air operations, the impact of using the aircraft will be central to the evolution of tactics and training.

Notably, Prowler pilots have been added to the MAWTS team in preparing for the F-35.  As one MAWTS instructor put it: “Prowler pilots are information warriors and this is a core element of what the F-35 is all about.”

With MAWTS working closely with the squadron, the development of tactics and training WHICH ARE AN INHERENT PART OF DEVELOPMENT for the plane, the squadron and the program, will be a center bull effort.

(For our earlier report on MAWTS and the F-35 see the following:

And this will be significant as the squadron moves out. Already, the deployment of the Yuma squadron to Japan is envisaged.

And in an interview with the 7th USAF commander, the significant role which the F-35Bs can play in his mission in the defense of South Korea and to provide for greater US combat capability in the region have been underscored.

Lt. General Jan-Marc Jouas emphasized the important role which these USMC F-35s will bring to his operations.

U.S. overseas basing decisions are not yet determined; however, any deployment of F-35s to the Korean peninsula will clearly modify the template, including the Marine Corps F-35B.

The Seventh Air Force relationship with the Marine Corps is the best I’ve ever seen.  Their aircraft will be dedicated to the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) at some point, but before then, they will be used as part of our air campaign to the greatest effect that we can deliver.

The F-35A, B, and C will give us greater flexibility, and greater options in terms of where and how we can operate.

We will integrate the F-35 with F-16s, F-15Ks, F-15Es, F-22s, and other airplanes in a way that will enhance and increase everybody’s capability, much in the same way that we currently see the F-22 and the F-15 integrating and increasing their capabilities.  Our targeting, and the effects that we will seek, will be adjusted by the fact that we have F-35s.

In other words, the F-35 is a key asset in shaping the “Pivot to the Pacific.” It is a lynchpin program in a lynchpin strategy.

In addition, the USS America will be home ported in San Diego and empowered with up to 23 F-35Bs on its decks, dependent upon the mission configuration of aircraft on its deck.

As Captain Hall, the prospective commander of the USS America recently underscored:

We are a large deck amphibious ship, just as the Kearsarge. But we are an aviation-centric large deck amphibious ship and we’ve been designed specifically without a well deck so we can support the USMC’s next generation of aircraft.

We can get out there with a much larger hanger bay with two high-hat areas to support maintenance on the much larger MV-22s.  The maintenance requirements for the F-35 are met and we have the capability to expand when required for future development. With our added fuel, ordnance, maintenance capability, supply and support capacity, we can sustain the aviation capability much longer on station.

And as Major General Walsh emphasized, the F-35s flying off of the deck of the USS America is not just a generational leap but a quantum leap.

When I went from flying F-4s to F-18s that was a shift.  With the F-35 it is a leap of multiple generations all at once.

It’s more of exponential curve than we did when we went from third generation to fourth generation.

It will be bringing electronic attack and C5ISR to the USS America as a presence asset.  This will be revolutionary.

Putting the new aviation assets together with the new ship will create the possibility of having a “MAGTF on steroids”.

The infrastructure associated with the F-35 is significant as well.

The two new F-35 hangars as seen from across the civilian air field on the level of the military club in Yuma Arizona. Credit Photo: SLD

New hangars and maintenance systems are being stood up together.

And the experience at Yuma and the USAF at Hill be replicated throughout the global fleet of F-35s.  A core advantage of the aircraft is that as a global fleet its support structure has significant commonality which allows for cost savings, and more effective collaboration among the services and the allies.

This next year already the Britis and Dutch will be at Eglin AFB for training.

And the Aussies, the Japanese, Italians and Norwegians are already on board in procuring the aircraft.

Getting that common experience from the initial squadrons will be a core element of deploying the aircraft and shaping the combat capabilities of the forces using that aircraft.

As Lt.General Robling, the highest ranking Marine in the Pacific has put it: the challenge facing the USN-USMC team in the Pacific is persistent presence.  And the F-35 operating on the joint and coalition level will be essential to the way ahead in executing such presence.

How can the allied F-35s work with yours to shape a new Pacific capability?

Lt. General Robling:  In two ways.

First, we would have common or like support structures.  This will increase are forward readiness posture by being able to fix and maintain aircraft that are deployed vice send them back to the states for repair or reach back to the US for parts.  The more allies who buy the aircraft the more spread out that support structure would be.

Second, the capability of the aircraft as a C5ISR platform will allow significant sharing information sharing and fusion to more of our partners who are able to receive and use the information.  This increases our persistent presence capability.  The aircraft will help fill in capability gaps or seams between us and our partnering countries and in the end, help build or increase their own capacity.

Another  key element for squadron experience is working through how best to maintain the aircraft and provide for optimal sortie generation rates.

One of the two new F-35 hangars at Yuma up close. Credit: SLD

As Lou Kratz, a key DOD player in the sustainment world and now with Lockheed Martin has underscored,

“As we reach the 200,000 operational mark with the use of the various maintenance systems, the services and the allies will be able to determine best practices and approaches in terms of manning and in terms of leveraging the common IT system underlying F-35 maintainability.”

The F-35B squadron at Yuma in November 2012 begins the process.

And cumulative US and allied experiences will build out the development process the aircraft and the fleet in action.  It is the beginning of the next phase of the F-35 program, equivalent to what the USMC did 5 years ago in Iraq with the Osprey.

The future does not belong to the timid, but to those whose lives depend on getting 21st century capabilities into the combat force.  Enhanced persistent presence for a 21st century strategy rolls out one F-35 squadron at a time.

See also the following:

A good way to look at the impact of the Yuma squadron on the future can be seen in our piece in Joint Forces Quarterly on The F-35 and the Future of Power Projection.

A version of this piece was first published by AOL Defense.