By Robbin Laird
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 242 declares their initial operations capability (IOC) for the F-35B Lightning II on Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Aug. 25, 2021. VMFA-242 is the second combat-capable forward-deployed F-35B squadron assigned to 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
The importance of the F-35 and their operations in the Indo-Pacific was underscored during my recent visit to MARFORPAC in August 2021. The coming of the F-35 to the Pacific is a major difference from my earlier visit to MARFORPAC in 2014. The Marines operate two squadrons of F-35s from Iwakuni with a third rotational squadron to be added in the future. The Marines operate the most forward deployed F-35s in the region and operate from the first Island Chain.
Now the USAF has deployed the F-35 into the region, and the Marines are working closely with them in shaping what the USAF calls “agile combat employment,” something for which the F-35B is ideally suited. The U.S. Navy is deploying F-35Cs into the Pacific with the introduction of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group. Marines are also involved as they are F-35C operators as well. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 operates those aircraft.
With allies buying F-35s and working towards ship-based F-35B operations, the envelope of engagement of the Marines in shaping shared coalition operational concepts and capabilities has expanded as well. They are working with allied F-35As as well as F-35Bs which means that working the first island chain through to South Korea is clearly a work in progress. Working closely with Japan and Australia as those allies deploy and develop their F-35 fleets provides significant opportunities to shape collaborative con-ops as well. Singapore is becoming an F-35 Security Cooperative Participant which extends the operational envelope as well for Marines working with allies in shaping collaborative defense capabilities and approaches.
The Marines as well are working new concepts like the Lightning Carrier, whereby operating of a ship like LHA-6, a larger number of F-35 can operate than with a traditional ARG-MEU. And intersecting the capabilities coming off the USS America with allies and the joint force afloat or based ashore provides an opportunity to expand significantly the impact of USMC F-35Bs can have in a combat situation in the Pacific. The reach of the sensor systems of an integratable F-35 fleet is a core enabler for the joint and coalition force in the Pacific.
But to get the full value out of a USMC F-35 force, it is crucial to fund the enablers. The weapons development calendar is behind schedule, and there is a clear need to ramp up the weapons planned for development for the F-35 enterprise. As the U.S. shifts from the land wars, it is important to ramp up high-end capabilities in the missile domain for sure.
A second key enabler is tanking. The KC-130J fleet is a key asset for USMC operations, and they are in short supply. If one wants to focus on their role to supply bases spread throughout the Pacific, then you are not highlighting their tanking role. If you are highlighting the tanking role, then you are reducing the ability to supply bases. There is no way around this other than ramping up the buys of KC-130Js.
MCAS IWAKUNI, YAMAGUCHI, JAPAN
Video by Cpl. Evan Jones