The F-35 in the Way Ahead for USMC-US Navy Integration


By Robbin Laird

During my visit to MAWTS-1 and to NAWDC, one clear instrument of their enhanced integration in the contested battlespace was rather obvious: The F-35 and its evolution as a global enterprise.

With the F-35 coming to the large deck carrier, the strike syllabus has changed. With the F-35 pioneered by the USMC, with its naval aviators leading the way, new capabilities have been brought to the force in terms of integratability, mobile basing, and combat power from the sea on a wider variety afloat asset than simply the large deck carrier.

With MAWTS-1 this year, I have discussed two sets of related questions: What is the way ahead with regard to mobile and expeditionary basing?

And how can the USMC provide greater support for the maritime battle?

Specifically, during my visit to MAWTS-1 in September 2020, we focused on two core questions:

How is the Marine Corps going to contribute most effectively to the Pacific mission in terms of Sea Control and Sea Denial?

And how to best contribute to the defensive and offensive operations affecting the SLOCs?

Prior to my visit, I discussed the mobile basing piece with Major Brian “Flubes” Hansell, MAWTS-1 F-35 Division Head. A key aspect of what we discussed was the capability which the F-35 to both empower their expeditionary bases as well as contributing to the wider integration in the fleet approach being worked.

As Major Hansell put it: “By being an expeditionary, forward-based service, we’re effectively extending the bounds of the kill web for the entire joint and coalition force.”

During the visit, I continued the discussion first with the Col Gillette, CO of MAWTS-1, an experienced F-35 pilot, whom I first met at Eglin AFB who then returned to YUMA and transitioned in the first F-35 operational squadron deployed to Japan.

My colleague Ed Timperlake once characterized the coming of the F-35 global enterprise, or the ability of a wide range of U.S. service and allied air forces to integrated together over the extended combat space as the 21st century “big blue blanket.”

The “big blue blanket” for the US Navy in World War II referred to the very large fleet deployed throughout the Pacific to deal with the tyranny of distance.

Such a fleet does not exist today, nor will it. Airpower is the key to shaping today’s “big blue blanket,” with the F-35 global enterprise as a key enabler.

As Col. Gillette put it: “It is not only a question of interoperability among the F-35 fleet, it is the ability to have common logistical and support in the region with your allies, flying the same aircraft with the same parts. And the big opportunity comes with regard to the information point I made earlier. We are in the early stages of exploiting what the F-35 force can provide in terms of information dominance in the Pacific, but the foundation has been laid.

“And when we highlight the F-35 as the 21st century version of what the World War II Navy called the big blue blanket with the redundancy and the amount of information that could be utilized, it’s pretty astonishing if you think about it.

“The challenge is to work the best ways to sort through the information resident in the F-35 force and then how do you utilize it in an effective and efficient way for the joint force. But the foundation is clearly there.

During my visit, I met with Major Shockley, an F-35 instructor pilot at MAWTS-1, whose most recent F-35 experience has been in the Pacific with the squadron in Japan.

He reinforced Col. Gillette’s point in terms of the ability of USMC F-35s to work with allied, USAF and US Navy F-35s as well to shape a situational awareness and strike force which expanded the reach of the joint or coalition force.

Indeed, Major Shockley highlighted the impact of F35-B thinking on base mobility. The F-35As and F-35Cs have some advantages in terms of fuel, and then range and loitering time with regard to the B, notably with regard to the C. Because the force is so inherently integratable, how best to work the chessboard of conflict with regard to where the various F-35 pieces move on the chessboard.

From this standpoint, he argued for the importance of shaping a “rolodex of basing locations” where F-35s could land and operate in a crisis.

Here he had in mind, not only what the very basing flexible B could provide, but thinking through deployment of “expeditionary landing gear” to allow the As and Cs to operate over a wider range of temporary air bases as well.

Here he was referring to preparing locations with the gear to enable landing on shorter run “airfields” as well as the kind of modifications the Norwegians have done with their F-35s enabling them to land in winter conditions in the High North as well.

With the F-35B as well, a much wider range of afloat assets are being used to enable the F-35 as a “flying combat system” to operate and enable ISR, C2 and strike capabilities for the joint and coalition force. This is being demonstrated throughout the amphibious fleet, a fleet which can be refocused on sea contrail and sea denial rather than simply transporting force to the littorals.

As Col. Gillette put it: “The traditional approach for the amphibious force is move force to an area of interest. Now we need to look at the entire maritime combat space, and ask how we can contribute to that combat space, and not simply move force from A to B.

“I think the first leap is to think of the amphibious task force, as you call it, to become a key as pieces on the chess board. As with any piece, they have strengths and weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are clear, such as the need for a common operational picture, a command and control suite to where the assets that provide data feeds to a carrier strike group are also incorporated onto L-Class shipping. We’re working on those things right now, in order to bring the situational awareness of those types of ships up to speed with the rest of the Naval fleet.”

A key consideration when highlighting what the F-35 as a wolfpack can bring to the force is deploying in the force multiples that make sense for the force.

This rests upon how the combat systems are configured on that force. In simple terms, the integrated communications, navigation and identification systems operate through a multiple layer security system, allowing a four ship F-35 force to operate as one.

With the Block IV software coming into the fleet, now an eight ship F-35 force can operate similarly.

This allows for wolfpack operations and with the ability of the reach of the F-35 into other joint or coalition F-35 force packages the data flowing into the F-35 and the C2 going out has a very significant reach and combat impact.

This is not widely known or understood, but provides a significant driver of change to being able to operate and prevail in denied combat environments. Leveraging this capability is critical for combat success for the US and allied forces in the Pacific.

And my visits to NAWDC and MAWTs-1 certainly underscore that these warfighters get that.

With regard to the CNI and wolfpack enablement, see the following:

Crafting Effective C2/ISR in the Contested Battlespace: The Impact of the CNI System


“The ability to share C2 decision making data across the F-35 global enterprise and make that data available other key elements of a task force operating in contested multi-domain operational area of interest is essential to its ability to work at the higher end of the fight.”

Featured photo: U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and U.S. Marines with Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) conduct a hot load on the F-35B Lightning II during Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (WTI) 2-17 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., March 30, 2017.

The ordnance loading exercise focused on loading the aircraft while the pilot is onboard and the engine is running which provides the Marine Corps with a capability to project Marine air power forward on the battlefield while decreasing aircraft turnaround time and increasing sortie generation. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg/MAWTS-1 Combat Camera)

March 30, 2017