The US Marine Corps (USMC) has stood-up its first operational Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) squadron at MCAS Yuma, Arizona.
Marine Strike Fighter Squadron (All Weather)-121 (VMFA(AW)-121) formally converted to the new jet from the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet during a ceremony on 20 November. However, the unit actually received its first short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B earlier on 16 November with the arrival of its first aircraft.
"This was a significant day for Marine aviation and for our nation. Anyone who understands the nature of fifth-generation TacAir knows that the F-35 is destined to dominate the battle space for the next half century," says retired Lt Gen George Trautman, former USMC deputy commandant for aviation. "Now that we have Lightning II aircraft operating in VMFA-121, I anticipate the pace of innovation and tactical development to increase exponentially. Today's ceremony was a fitting commemoration of the next 100 years of Marine aviation."
The USMC is eager to emphasize that the VMFA-121 is an operational unit.
"It is an operational squadron, it is not a test squadron-it's not developmental test or operational test, it's not a fleet replacement squadron like VMFAT-501. You can't call it anything else other than an operational squadron," says Col Kevin Killea, the USMC's aviation requirements officer at the Pentagon. "That being said, the Marine Corps certainly is not putting out a banner today that says it's operationally capable."
The aircraft at MCAS Yuma are operating with a Block 1B hardware and software configuration, Killea says. That means that the aircraft currently has a limited flight envelope with no dynamic maneuver capability and no air-to-ground strike capability.
"We're going to grow with the airplane," Killea says. VMFA-121, he says, will form a base of experience from which the USMC can grow its F-35 community. The USMC aviators who will be flying with VMFA-121 are handpicked conversion pilots with thousands of hours of flight time in tactical fighters-the F/A-18 and Boeing AV-8B Harrier II. As the Marines increase the size and capabilities of the F-35 fleet and more squadrons are converted to the new jet, those elite VMFA-121 aviators will be transferred as needed to form the core of those new units. "Our ultimate goal is to build a cadre of pilots here," Killea says.
VMFA-121 is scheduled to receive 16 F-35Bs by September 2013, Killea says. But because the aircraft are early production models, they will frequently have to return to their depots for modifications as the aircraft's design is updated. "While they will have 16 aircraft assigned to them by September of '13, they certainly won't have 16 shadows on the ramp," he says.
The next squadron to transition to the F-35B will be VMA-211, which currently flies Harriers, late in 2014.
The USMC is fielding the F-35B to its operational squadrons before the aircraft has completed its operational testing. The Pentagon's Joint Operational Test Team (JOTT), consisting of US Air Force, US Navy and USMC testers, will start evaluating the F-35's Block 2B configuration in 2015 at Edwards AFB, California. Block 2B is the configuration the USMC intends to declare the F-35B operational with; the USAF and USN will declare initial operational capability (IOC) with the full Block 3 system. "Certainly, the Marine Corps is not tied to the end of operational test to declare initial operation capability," Killea says.
That does not necessarily mean the USMC will declare IOC before operational testing is complete, but Killea says that the service could do it. The Marines have certain criteria that must be met, which include enough equipment and trained crews for two shifts of maintainers, 10 deployable jets with all required modifications and a working and deployable autonomic logistics information system (ALIS) before the service will declare the F-35B as operational. "We're not restricted by OT [operational test] results to declare an operational capability," Killea says. "It's not uncommon for weapons systems and aircraft systems to be fielded with deficiencies in operational test that have to be addressed."
Nonetheless, Killea says the USMC will examine the data from operational testing carefully and will implement any needed fixes. The service says the F-35B's IOC date is "event driven" and will not commit to a firm timeline.