For F-35's First Deployment, Marines Plan 'School of Hard Knocks'

A 33rd Fighter Wing F-35A flies over Volk Field, Wis. during Northern Lightning on Aug. 22. A 33rd Fighter Wing F-35A flies over Volk Field, Wis. during Northern Lightning on Aug. 22. Senior Airman Stormy Archer/Air Force

The F-35’s first deployment next year will help the Marine Corps discover what still needs fixing with the new fifth-generation jet, and where to go in the future, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh told reporters Tuesday.

Not only will the Marines be the first force to deploy the Lockheed Martin jet in an operational context—aboard the USS Wasp next year—it will deploy a second contingent soon after, this one aboard the USS Essex.

“We will learn from that, and see what capabilities we need to further develop,” said Walsh, the commanding general of the Marines’ Combat Development Command. “A lot of it’s going to be the school of hard knocks.”

The Marines will begin moving 16 F-35Bs to Iwakuni Air Station in Japan early next year. The jets will deploy as part of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 in early 2017, a Marine spokeswoman said. At year’s end, six of that squadron’s planes will attach to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.  

In the 31st MEU, VMFA-121 will link up with the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, a regiment charged with being the “experimental force” of the Marines for its two years in the expeditionary force, Walsh said. It’s an apt pairing, given that the F-35’s first deployment will be a testing field for the plane’s capabilities—and numerous issues with weapons and software.

About eight months after the F-35 starts proving itself in Japan aboard the Wasp, supporting Pacific-area exercises, a southern California MEU will deploy with the plane under Central Command.

“We’re getting ready to do more F-35 integration: Essex will go in and it will get those mods, and it will come out and be ready for deployment, I think, probably eight months or so after Wasp,” Walsh said. “And we’ll just continue to modify our big-deck amphibs to be able to take F-35s.”

The Marines, as it happens, would have preferred to let the Air Force or Navy work out the kinks in the new aircraft, Walsh said. But the Air Force just declared its F-35As ready for war this month. In any case, he said the Corps is excited to start putting the plane aboard its amphibious assault ships.

“The Marine Corps has been out in front with the F-35B,” Walsh said. “It’s probably not the way we would have wanted it,” but “we want to exploit fifth generation. … We’ve been after this a long time.”

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