The US Marine Corps is one of the three wings of the country’s military that uses the advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets. And the Marine F-35 squadron has outpaced that of the Air Force and the Navy in the capability race.
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The Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 announced earlier this month that its fifth-generation F-35C jets have achieved full operational capability (FOC), meaning they’re ready for full operations.
Based at the Air Station Miramar in California, VMFA-314 is the first F-35C squadron in the Marine Corps to declare FOC. They are now full up round and bring the incredible 5th generation capability. They will deploy as part of a Carrier Strike Group next year, according to the press release.
“Many hours were spent maintaining aircraft, launching and recovering aircraft in Miramar, at other military facilities, and aboard the ship to conduct the training required to meet these goals,” said Major Derek Heinz, VMFA-314 operations officer.
“The Marines now have enough experience with the jet to understand what it can and can’t do and how they have to operate it,” he added.
VMFA-314 received its first F-35C on January 21, 2020. The actual number of jets it possesses remains undisclosed but the Marines plan to procure 67 F-35Cs, according to the 2019 USMC Aviation Plan.
Lockheed Martin F-35
One of the most advanced fighter jets in the world, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II is a fifth-generation stealth jet with high maneuverability, supersonic speeds, and multi-role capabilities.
It has been exported to 14 countries and recently surpassed 400,000 flight hours.
The F-35 has three variants, all single-seat jets. The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing variant (CTOL), the most sought-after one among international customers.
The F-35B is a short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL), which can be used either on land or on aircraft carriers.
The F-35C is a carrier variant exclusively for naval forces. It is the US Navy’s first stealth fighter and the world’s only 5th Generation, long-range stealth strike fighter designed and built explicitly for aircraft carrier operations.
According to the manufacturer, all three variants have similar performance characteristics and the exact same advanced avionics.
“The variation between models allows military forces to achieve service-specific mission capability, while still taking advantage of the economies of scale that result from the parts and processes that are common to all three variants,” Lockheed Martin said.
US Air Force and Navy
According to military experts, the reason behind achieving the operational breakthrough in such a short period of time could be that the US Marine Corps have purchased far fewer of the C variant than the Navy and Air Force.
The Air Force has received more than 280 aircraft, making the F-35 fighter the second-largest fleet in the US Air Force, after the F-16 Fighting Falcon (934 C and D models).
The US Air Force has planned a purchase of 1,763 jets, all of them F-35A.
“The Air Force is not expected to declare full capability for its F-35A conventional take-off and landing jet until two combat bases are fully operational with the appropriate amount of trained personnel,” Air Combat Command spokeswoman Alexi Worley told Military.com.
The two bases mentioned above are Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The Hill base has a fleet of 78 jets while the Eielson base has acquired 25 jets to date; 54 more are expected to be delivered by the end of this year.
Popular Mechanics reported that around 41 Air Force F-35As remain grounded under the Mission Impaired Capability Awaiting Parts (MICAP) status, meaning they’re unable to fly missions until engine-related and other technical problems are fixed.
On the other hand, the US Navy is planning to procure 273 of the carrier-capable F-35C variants. At present, the Navy only has one deployable F-35C squadron, Strike Fighter Squadron 147 or the “Argonauts”, based out of Naval Air Station Lemoore in California.
“The Argonauts will deploy with the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group later this summer,” Cmdr. Zach Harrell, the spokesperson for Commander, Naval Air Forces, told Military.com.
The Marine Corps also plans to buy 353 F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing models. The F-35B variant received basic certification in 2015, which allows the plane to fly patrols and conduct basic strikes, but not yet ready for more advanced missions. This feat was also achieved ahead of the Navy and Air Force.
In February 2021, Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron VMFA(AW) 225 “Vikings” officially transitioned to an F-35B squadron, adopting the new designation as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 225.
The VMFA-225 will become the fifth Fleet Marine Force F-35B squadron of the Marine Corps and will join VMFA-211 and VMFA-122, according to Marine Corps official website.
In what was seen as the first combat deployment of US F-35, in July 2018, Marine Corps F-35Bs were launched from the assault ship (landing helicopter dock) USS Essex. They launched an airstrike on a Taliban target in Afghanistan on September 27, 2018.
Later, the US Air Force deployed the F-35As to Al Dhafra Air Base in UAE in 2019 where they were used in an airstrike on an Islamic State tunnel network in northern Iraq.
Other countries have also begun integrating the Joint Strike Fighter with their militaries and deploying them to conflict zones.
In 2018, the Israeli Air Force deployed their F-35I (known as ‘Adir’, an F-35A variant modified for Israeli needs) on two battlefronts, marking the first combat operation of an F-35 by a country other than the US.
In May this year, the F-35Is also took part in Operation Guardian of the Walls, attacking terrorist targets in Hamas’ rocket array in Gaza Strip in the recent Gaza conflict.
Last month, the British F-35B stealth fighter jets onboard the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier launched counter-terror operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East, The Eurasian Times reported.
Besides, the stealth fighters were a part of the Falcon Strike 2021 drill in which Italy, the US, the UK, and Israel participated to practice air superiority, air-to-air and air-ground battle scenarios, the threat of advanced air defense batteries, and enemy planes as well as providing support to ground forces.
If the US Air Force Eielson base receives the delivery on time and the US Navy is able to successfully deploy the jets to Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group by the end of this year, the F-35s could be fully operational in all three services by 2022.