The Next Phase for the F-35B: Empowering the Sea-Base


2016-11-29 By Todd Miller

The US Marine Corps (USMC) F-35 program is accelerating rapidly, and deployment is underway.

Second Line of Defense had the opportunity to see the progress in action during a “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the USS America off the coast of Southern California November 18-20, 2016.

During the visit the program status was provided by USMC Col. George “Sack” Rowell, Commanding Officer (CO) of VMX-1 (Marine Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron) and Lt. General Jon “Dog” Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation.

Rowell noted that VMFAT-501 the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) based at MCAS Beaufort, SC has qualified over 60 F-35B pilots to date.

These are conversion pilots, in other words coming over from the F/A-18 or the AV-8B. EA-6B pilots have been utilized in developing the CAT 1 syllabus for those pilots coming straight out of flight school into the F-35B (CAT 1 graduates are imminent).

The Marines are scheduled to train an additional 63 pilots by 2018, and these pilots from VMFAT-501 will fill the pipeline for VMFA-211 & VMFA-121 (the two current operational squadrons) as well as VMX-1, MAWST-1 (Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One) and additional Instructors for VMFAT-501.

MAWTS-1 creates fleet weapons and tactics instructors.

The F-35 is fully integrated into this course and has been for several years, where both a 4th & 5th Gen integration is addressed (AV-8B, F/A-18 & all other aviation platforms with F-35).

Qualified F-35 Weapons and Tactics Instructors (WTI) have graduated and additional graduates are forthcoming.

Davis indicated that he is particularly focused with the F-35 deployments.

Funding has been executed for spare parts to ensure adequate support for the deployments.

The VMFA-121 “Green Knights” are well into their deployment to Japan to be complete January 2017.

VMFA-121 will deploy at sea in 2018, as will VMFA-211 “Wake Island Avengers.”

Davis is now focused on the “Werewolves” of VMFA-122, the next F-35B squadron that will move from F/A-18s and stand-up in F-35Bs out of MCAS Yuma.

Next up in 2019/2020 will be the “Black Knights,” VMFA-314 of MCAS Miramar, the first USMC squadron with the F-35C.

As Davis stated, his priority is “getting the Marines out of the old metal and into the new metal.”

Onboard the USS America the “Proof of Concept” (POC) demonstration was underway.

Per Rowell the intent was demonstrating the integration of a large package of F-35Bs into the US Navy (USN) US Marine Corps (USMC) structure to maximize seaborne power projection.

This demonstration was an important step to explore operational aspect for both the USN and USMC in preparation for upcoming deployments.

The POC included 10 F-35Bs gathered from VMFA- 211 and VMX-1, two MV-22B Ospreys, a UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper from VMX-1.

Two additional F-35Bs from VX-23 were shipborne at the time of our visit.

Beyond the tactical portion of the demonstration, valuable experience was gained from the integration of USMC STOVL, rotor wing and tiltrotor assets in the deck cycle.

Per Rowell the DT-III and POC demonstration were supported by a contingent of Marines on board.

  • F-35B pilots; 5 from VMFA-211, 7 from VMX-1, 2 from VX-23.
  • 18 VMX-1 rotor wing and tiltrotor pilots.
  • 140 Maintenance & support personnel

For many of these Marines it was their first visit to a ship and they quickly experienced the unique challenges of everything from shipborne cooking to shipborne maintenance – in steady and high state seas.

On the 3rd day of the POC a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) tailored strike mission was planned.

Four F-35Bs were designated to engage a notional Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), with a AH-1Z and 2 MV-22s escorted by an additional 2 F-35Bs.

This mission set represents the high level of capability the F-35B brings to the amphibious assault force – comprised of an LHA platform, with MV-22Bs, AH-1Zs, UH-1Ys, & incoming CH-53K.

The F-35B performed very well throughout the DT-III and the POC.

Rowell indicated about 300 vertical landings had taken place in the last 3 weeks, equal to about 4 months of normal operations with 6 AV-8Bs.

In addition, the aircraft on board utilized a variety of software Blocks, including Blocks 2B, 3i and 3F, with no stability issues experienced with 3F.

The F-35Bs performance and the solid progress across the board are clear indicators that the Marines consider themselves “good to go” with the F-35B. This confidence was expressed by Davis, “I’d deploy tomorrow. Tomorrow.

The Commanding Officer (CO) of VFMA-211 is chomping at the bit he would deploy them, so would the CO of VFMA-121.

They are ready.

These airplanes are highly capable and ready to go.“

The Second Line of Defense thanks Sylvia Pierson, and Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA; Capt. Sarah Burns & 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs; Captain Joseph R. Olson, Commanding Officer of the USS America and entire crew; Lt. General Jon “Dog” Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation; and USMC VMX-1 Commanding Officer, Col. George “Sack” Rowell.

The photos are credited to Todd Miller.