Reshaping the Fleet in the Pacific: F-35Bs, Distributed Lethality and Unmanned Systems, and Allied Capabilities


By Robbin Laird

The kill web appraoch at sea is tapping into a number of key real world operational developments as well as new technologies which will enhance distributed operations and lethality.

Three sets of new stories recently published although not linked in the press, clearly are linked in terms of operational opportunities.

The first is the coming of a large AMPHIB carrying what will become its normal compliment of F-35Bs onboard.  And the normal can be plused up with more F-35Bs and Ospreys as aerial refuelers.

We have written for some time about what one might call the Lightning carrier — a large deck amphibious ship which can reach back to land based F-35s to deliver significant combat capability to an area of interest.

We recently discussed the kill web and force structure evolution and made the point that the force appropriate to deal with full spectrum crisis management operations, is a natural for an F-35-enabled force.

The force we need to build will have five key interactives capabilities:

  1. Enough platforms with allied and US forces in mind to provide significant presence;
  2. A capability to maximize economy of force with that presence;
  3. Scalability whereby the presence force can reach back if necessary at the speed of light and receive combat reinforcements;
  4. Be able to tap into variable lethality capabilities appropriate to the mission or the threat in order to exercise dominance.
  5. And to have the situational awareness relevant to proactive crisis management at the point of interest and an ability to link the fluidity of local knowledge to appropriate tactical and strategic decisions.

A recent article by Joseph Trevithick published on April 1, 2019, highlighted the entrance into the South China Sea of the USS Wasp.

The story lead in is as follows:

“U.S. Amphibious Assault Ship In South China Sea With Unprecedentedly Large Load of F-35Bs

The Marines are hoping to make this a more common occurrence and it could be a stepping stone to “Lighting Carriers” packed with even more F-35Bs”.

From what we can see on deck, Wasp’s current complement includes at least 10 F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron One Two One (VMFA-121), as well as four MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron Two Six Eight (VMM-268) and a pair of MH-60S Sea Hawks from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Two Five (HSC-25).

A more typical aviation component onboard an amphibious assault ship would only have around six F-35Bs, in favor of more MV-22s, as well as a detachment of CH-53E Sea Stallion heavy lift helicopters.

This is by no means a hard rule, though, and Wasp-class ships have carried AH-1 gunships and UH-1 light armed utility helicopters at times, as well.

It’s also important to mention that we don’t know how many more aircraft were in the ship’s hangar bay when the photos were shot.

The Marine aviation force in the Philippines right now reflects the development of high- and low-end force mixtures to respond to a variety of different crises, from a potential major conflict to a humanitarian disaster, that has been ongoing since at least 2012. How to employ the F-35B, which the Marine Corps officially said had reached initial operational capability in 2015, has been at the core component of crafting these concepts.

The key point in all of this is the economy of force linked to scalability which can enhance the forces available to deal with an adversary in a crisis, including a high-end one.

And the mix and match capabilities which can be deployed on or added to amphibious task force is why it is such a core crisis management approach.

We discussed the evolution of where the Marines and the Navy could go as the large deck amphib ship, notably in terms of a USS America, could go with regard to enhanced capabilities onboard the ship.

In a 2103 interview we did with Lt. General Schmidle, then the Deputy Commandant of Aviation, he laid out a possible path ahead:

We are looking at a sixteen-ship F-35B formation flying with a four-ship Osprey formation. 

The Ospreys could fly with the Bs to provide fuel and munitions for rearming wherever the F-35Bs can land. 

As you know, the F-35B can land in a wide variety of areas and as a result this gives us a very mobile strike force to operate throughout the battlespace. 

This kind of flexibility will be crucial in the years ahead.

He also added:  “I think that we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we, the Marine Corps, are going to be able to offer much more to the joint force in terms of capability.

“And as General Hostage put it to me, Marine Corps assets will be considered an integrated part of the joint force, in a way he has not thought of it before.

“The Air Force commander will look at USMC or USN F-35s as part of his F-35 fleet from the perspective of the joint fight.”

That leads us to the second news story.

With the Marines operating their F-35Bs in the Pacific and in this case off of the USS WASP, the linkage to the USAF also applies to allies flying their F-35s in the region.

What this means is that F-35 is a key asset which can lead to enhanced flexibility in deploying a scalable force to a crisis.

And it is the added advantage in that this does not simply need to be a US action.

What we have called for many years, the F-35 global enterprise, is becoming a reality as the Japanese declared their first squadron operational and regional allies are working together to deploy force in common in the region.

A recent article in Australian Defence Business Review highlighted the developing situation with regard to regional F-35 partners.

Japan has established its first operational F-35A squadron, while South Korea’s first two F-35As have arrived in that country, bringing additional F-35 capabilities and operators into the region.

The Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) established the 302nd Squadron, an element of its 3rd Air Wing at Misawa Air Base on Honshu on March 29. The first F-35As arrived at Misawa in January 2018, and the unit will have an eventual complement of 12 F-35As which have replaced the Mitsubishi F-4EJ-Kai Phantom in service.

“This is a major milestone for the F-35 enterprise, as it marks the first F-35 IOC for an Indo-Pacific region customer,” F-35 program executive officer VAdm Mat Winter, said in a statement.

“This significant achievement is a testament to the global nature of this program, and the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) values the long-established bond with our Japan allies. This could not have happened without the hard work and collaboration between the F-35 JPO, the Japan F-35 program, our industry partners and the Japanese Air Self Defense Force.”

Japan’s first four F-35As were built by Lockheed Martin at Fort Worth, while the 302nd’s remaining aircraft will be manufactured by Mitsubishi in Japan. Japan last December increased its planned order from 42 F-35As aircraft to a total of 147 aircraft, including 42 short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35Bs to be deployed aboard its Izumo class helicopter destroyers.

And then in January, Japan announced that it would discontinue local production and instead take the increased aircraft order direct from Lockheed Martin.

In the meantime, the Republic of Korea Air Force’s first two of 40 F-35As arrived in-country on March 29, flying in to Cheongju in North Chungcheong Province from the F-35 International Training Centre at Luke AFB in Arizona where they had been involved in training Korea’s first crews and maintenance personnel.

Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said it was expecting a further eight F-35As would be delivered this year.

“We expect the deployment of the stealth fighters could enhance the Air Force’s operational capabilities by strengthening military readiness posture against possible threats from all fronts,” DAPA chief Wang Jung-Hong told local media.

The first ROKAF F-35A was rolled out at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth in January 2018, and the first flight by a ROKAF pilot was conducted at Luke AFB that July. A video of the ROKAF F-35A arrival can be seen here.

Australia took delivery of its first two F-35As at RAAF Williamtown last December, and will accept a further eight aircraft this year, while the US Marine Corps has forward deployed in Japan and embarked on the LHD USS Wasp. Elsewhere in the region, Singapore indicated in January its intention to acquire the F-35.

Being able to leverage the common SA and common targeting —kinetic and non-kinetic — capabilities of these aircraft through a secure data network is a 21st century combat capability which enables the US and allied combat forces in a very different way than a legacy force.

The third news story was about a Navy decision to rethink its next generation destroyer in terms of designing the ship to take in account the unmanned vehicle dynamic.

Asked about this apparent delay in the new ship’s start, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told USNI News that the requirement for the ship is being revisited in light of the new focus on future operating concepts that emphasize distributed, lethal – and in many cases unmanned – platforms equipped with weapons still in development.

“I’ve got to tell you, given the discussion that’s happened already, first question that we have to do is prove to ourselves that we need a large surface combatant.

“What is the unique contribution of something like that in the face of all these emerging technologies?” Richardson said while speaking to reporters after a speech at the annual McAleese Defense Programs event.

“Right now the discussions point to the fact that it brings a unique capability in terms of house larger types of weapons, larger missiles; you certainly get more aperture on a bigger sensor; those sorts of things.”

This was an expression of what the Navy has called “distributed lethality” but it is clear that a common F-35 fleet flying top cover with an ability to work with surface and subsurface ships which can leverage a mix of weapons, and unmanned vehicles will lead to a much more lethal force able to provide presence, economy of force, scalability and appropriate lethality which we have focused upon.

Rather than three different news stories, these items are part of a common theme, building out the kill web.

The featured photo shows a JASDF F-35 flying near Mt. Fuji in Japan. Credit: JSDF