The Marine Corp has declared initial operational capability for their first squadron of F-35Bs. The announcement is seen by some as more of PR achievement as the aircraft still has years of testing ahead of it. Others will argue that it represents a major accomplishment for the beleaguered F-35 program. But regardless of who you agree with, the USMC have succeeded at ramming the aircraft through a marker post that has always been a huge point of contention.
Commandant of the Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford made the following statement:
I am pleased to announce that VMFA-121 has achieved initial operational capability in the F-35B, as defined by requirements outlined in the June 2014 Joint Report to Congressional Defense Committees... VMFA-121 has ten aircraft in the Block 2B configuration with the requisite performance envelope and weapons clearances, to include the training, sustainment capabilities, and infrastructure to deploy to an austere site or a ship. It is capable of conducting close air support, offensive and defensive counter air, air interdiction, assault support escort and armed reconnaissance as part of a Marine Air Ground Task Force, or in support of the Joint Force.
But is the F-35B really ready for combat? The level at which the squadron can do all those things General Dunford mentions remains debatable. During the latest at-sea trial for the F-35, which was made up of a hodgepodge of aircraft and personnel from the integrated test force and from the F-35B’s training unit, the aircraft proved it could operate from the ship, but its serviceability rate, and thus its effectiveness while deployed as part of an Marine Expeditionary Unit remains in question.
The F-35B’s software, which is a generation older than what was originally anticipated for declaring IOC, is also an issue, as it limits the aircraft’s sensor abilities and weapons menu among other functions. The jet will only be able to carry internal stores, including laser guided bombs, JDAMs and AMRAAMs. It also cannot use its bolt-on cannon for at least a couple more years, at best.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s Brass are slowly coming to terms with the program’s massive roller-coaster ride, concurrency being the major offender, and its implications for future weapon systems development
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James stated the following at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado about the program:
The biggest lesson I have learned from the F-35 is never again should we be flying an aircraft while we’re building it... People believed we could go faster, cheaper, better and that the degree of concurrency would work. Indeed it has not worked as well as we had hoped and that’s probably the understatement of the day... It has taken us too long, it has cost us way more money than we ever imagined possible.
Then there was the dismal dogfight report that rocked the program recently, with pilot complaints ranging from lackluster agility vis a vis an F-16 with external fuel tanks, to an inability to see their target due to the size of the F-35’s advanced helmet with its integrated display. This same system got less than raving reviews from a USAF F-35 pilot just weeks later.
But it’s not all bad news for the F-35. The jet made its first air show appearance off a military airfield at EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh last week and recent Green Flag war games saw the F-35 perform well, dropping bombs for close air support and taking on a couple divisions of F-16s and SAMs during its way in and out of the target area. Because of the classified nature of the F-35’s performance during the exercise, info from it has been largely anecdotal, so it has to be taken as such.
So what happens now? Although the VMFA-121 and their F-35Bs are technically operational, they are not scheduled to deploy for another two years, when the squadron will move to Japan. An actual cruise as part of Expeditionary Strike Group will not occur until at least a year after that. In the meantime the squadron technically has the potential to deploy if needed, although it’s doubtful that will happen. Instead they should appear more frequently at exercises around the U.S. and eventually abroad.
Regardless of the F-35’s current state of development, and just how relevant it is today as an “operational” platform, a huge congrats to the folks on the program and the Marines who are working with the jet on their accomplishment. It has not been an easy road for any of them, and their hard work needs to be recognized.
The F-35B is really the most relevant out of all three Joint Strike Fighter variants, and its design requirements will handicap the other 85 percent or more of the F-35 total force that will land on conventional runways and aircraft carriers. That being said, seeing the B model prosper is a good thing, because without the F-35B being a success, we’ll have just over 2,000 F-35As and Cs that have paid the price in performance, stealth and cost to incorporate the F-35B’s unique short takeoff and vertical landing requirement into their common designs, without its payoffs for the USMC. No matter how bad the F-35 program has suffered during its development, a Joint Strike Fighter force without the F-35B would be absolutely tragic.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.