‘The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our nation with its first fifth-generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win’ Gen Joseph Dunford

On the last day of July last year, the US Marine Corps finally declared initial operational capability (IOC) for its F-35B Lightning II aircraft. In other words, the amphibious warfare specialists now have a squadron of 10 F-35Bs ready for deployment anywhere in the world.

The achievement was recorded by Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) ‘Green Knights’, based at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, which became the first squadron to become operational with any F-35 variant, and followed a five-day Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI), which concluded on July 17.

The ORI saw VMFA-121 pilots take three written exams that tested them on immediate action procedures, general aircraft knowledge, and tactics. Then, during four flights and three rides in the simulator, the aircrews’ ability to conduct specified missions was assessed. The ‘Green Knights’ maintainers were also put through their paces, with an examination of the maintenance and supply programs currently in place.

The 10 VMFA-121 jets are 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’, announced Gen Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps. This means the aircraft can fly close air support (CAS), offensive and defensive counter-air, air interdiction, assault support escort, and armed reconnaissance missions, either within a Marine Air-Ground Task Force, or in support of joint forces.

While the path toward IOC has taken more than two years, the exact requirements for IOC declaration were laid out in the June 2014 Joint Report to Congressional Defense Committees. In the run-up to IOC, the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) warplane was put through its paces during seven weeks of flight operations on board the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), during large-force exercises, and in an operational evaluation (Opeval) that included multiple live ordnance sorties.

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Speaking to journalists on the eve of the declaration, Lt Gen Jon Davis, the USMC’s Deputy Commandant for Aviation, was in bullish mood. Davis highlighted the aircraft’s showing in the CAS and armed reconnaissance roles, where it is already performing ‘very, very well — great accuracy with the hits’. Meanwhile, the exchange rates and kill rates recorded by the F-35B against adversary aircraft in the course of a multi-mission profile had been ‘incredibly impressive’.

Since the Lightning II has been designed from the ground up with low observables in mind, Davis was at pains to point out that the CAS and armed recce scenarios in Opeval had involved a very high level of threat. ‘We would never put a ‘legacy’ platform in that kind of threat environment, but these guys went and did it’, Davis remarked, before noting the F-35B’s potential to conduct the type of ‘Scud’-hunting missions flown in the 1991 Gulf War — and to do so unescorted, even if targets were defended by high-end surface-to-air missiles. During Opeval, F-35Bs armed with Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), Laser JDAMs and GBU-12 laser-guided bombs flew ‘Syria-type’ missions, but with the addition of medium and high levels of threat.

‘The guys did so well with the weapons we gave them’, Davis enthused. Asked whether the F-35B can do what an A-10 does in the CAS environment, Davis was sanguine: yes, it can match the ‘Warthog’, with or without the gun. Davis also pointed out that the highly relevant Small Diameter Bomb capability that the A-10 lacks is one that will be added to the F-35B in the future.

While the USMC describes the declaration of IOC as ‘the most significant milestone achievement in F-35 program history’, in truth, it’s simply the beginning of what will be a long path toward full operational capability (FOC), slated for the fourth quarter of 2017 — Davis quoted a window of plus or minus six months within which to achieve this. The roadmap has been especially complex, not just as a result of the game-changing technology involved, but also because developmental testing and operational flying have been run concurrently. It’s a concept that has had its critics, but one that industry and the military agree is vital to get working Joint Strike Fighters in the hands of the troops in the most expeditious way.

There will be many more hurdles to clear before the F-35B is mature enough to take its place as the centerpiece of Marine tactical aviation, replacing the AV-8B Harrier II, F/A-18 Hornet, and EA-6B Prowler. As a result, Lt Gen Davis has an extensive list of items that will need to be ticked off before the aircraft starts to truly fulfill its potential. On Davis’s personal wish-list right now are the Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB II, ‘something I’d like sooner rather than later’), video streaming capability, four-ship data fusion (currently, the Marines are making do with two-ship fusion), and a pilot’s helmet with full visual acuity at night (i.e. with night-vision goggle capability).

The current Gen 2 helmet can be used for night work, including deck landings and aerial refueling, but the secondary night-vision camera lacks acuity. Rockwell Collins announced delivery of the first Generation 3 (Gen 3) helmet-mounted display system (HMDS) for the Lightning II to the Joint Program Office (JPO) on August 11. Before the new helmet comes on line with USMC units, Davis still judges F-35B performance with the existing Gen 2 helmet as ‘better than a ‘legacy’ platform with a Gen 4 helmet-mounted sight.’

As regards data fusion, latency issues with the current Block 2B software mean that four aircraft can’t be ‘tied together’, at least not effectively. In the interim, the Marines are working on the basis of two groups of two interconnected F-35Bs (known as 2+2). ‘There’s no latency at all with the first two airplanes; there’s no latency problems with ships three and four’, Davis explained. ‘It’s when I try and tie all four together that sometimes a target is kind of slightly misplaced on the ground, or it’s not but I’m not confident in 100 per cent of the cases exactly where it’s supposed to be.’

Davis expects Lockheed Martin to complete a software patch for the data fusion issue within six months to a year. Once this is up and running, four aircraft sharing data between them will significantly improve targeting accuracy, especially against moving ground targets. The four-ship data-fusion capability is also a prerequisite of the forthcoming Block 3F software standard.

In light of controversy surrounding the Lightning II’s supposed deficiencies in aerial combat, Davis took the opportunity to make the case for the F-35B against the nimble F-16. ‘The F-16 is a great airplane. But I would not want to get into a full-up fight [against an F-35B]. The Air Force did not change their buy from a total of 1,700 [F-35As]. They are a bunch of meat-eaters, and they are totally convinced this is the right way to go’. Davis highlighted the performance of a four-ship of F-35Bs put up against no fewer than nine bad guys — ‘It didn’t go so well for the bad guys. It went poorly for the bad guys, all of them.’

The full version of this feature appears in the October 2015 edition of Combat Aircraft.

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