The US Marine Corps has stood up its first Lockheed Martin F-35B squadron at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, and during the next year the fleet will grow to 16. But although the Marines are adamant that VMFA-121 is an operational unit, it is not operationally capable.
The aircraft are early production models with a basic Block 1B configuration. They fly a limited flight envelope and cannot even fly during instrument meteorological conditions. Moreover, as currently configured, they have no combat capability.
Operational testing is years away, but the Marines say they may not wait for the evaluation to be completed. They might declare the F-35B operational the moment they have 10 deployable interim-configuration jets and enough equipment and trained maintenance crews for two shifts. It is not unusual for a weapons system to be declared operational with known deficiencies and before testing is finished, the USMC argues.
This line of reasoning is all too familiar. In years past, when the Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey was entering service, the overzealous USMC rushed the aircraft into the fleet without proper testing and with multiple known design flaws. In their zeal, some USMC units even falsified maintenance records. The result was the loss of almost two dozen lives. History cannot be allowed to repeat itself; the Pentagon must ensure the USMC does not prematurely deploy the F-35B.
(This first appeared as a leader in 27 November 2012 issue of Flight International)