A detachment of F-35B Lightning IIs with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, landed on the USS Wasp (LHD-1) on March 5, marking the beginning of the F-35B’s first operational deployment with a MEU.
The aircraft embarked on the USS Wasp in advance of the 31st MEU’s upcoming Spring Patrol 2018, a regularly-scheduled patrol of the Indo-Pacific region with the ships of Amphibious Squadron 11, forming the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group. This is the first time the aircraft has deployed aboard a U.S. Navy ship and with a Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Indo-Pacific.
The F-35B, assigned under the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, will provide a robust set of sea-based capabilities that will enhance Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary operations. The aircraft is equally capable of conducting precision strikes inland, supporting Marines inserted ashore or providing air defence for the Expeditionary Strike Group.
“This is a historic deployment,” said Col. Tye R. Wallace, 31st MEU Commanding Officer. “The F-35B is the most capable aircraft ever to support a Marine rifleman on the ground. It brings a range of new capabilities to the MEU that makes us a more lethal and effective Marine Air-Ground Task Force.”
Well-suited for the Marine Corps’ amphibious and expeditionary focus, the F-35B can carry more firepower into more uncertain environments for longer periods of time, with better survivability than any other aircraft in history.
The “B” variant of the F-35 is the only one capable of short take-off and vertical landing. The STOVL capability allows the F-35B to launch from and land on amphibious assault ships like the Wasp, greatly increasing the F-35B’s range and deployability.
“The F-35B is a game-changer for the Marine Corps,” said LtCol. Richard Rusnok, VMFA-121 Commanding Officer. “We are honoured to be the first to deploy such a capable aircraft in support of a MEU, and are looking forward to integrating will all the other elements of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force and Navy Amphibious forces during this and future deployments.”
The F-35B combines a variety of specialized capabilities in one aircraft, such as stealth, electronic attack, advanced sensors technology and high payload capacity, all while maintaining the agility that fighters are known for. The resulting flexibility allows a lone F-35B to accomplish missions that would otherwise require multiple aircraft.
With advances in sensors and networking technology, the F-35B is able to share a superior picture of the battlefield with other pilots flying different platforms like the F/A-18 Hornet or AV-8B Harrier. The result is a force-multiplying effect for the Marine Corps’ existing fleet of aircraft that illuminates the battlefield for all friendly pilots in the sky.
US Marine Corps VMFA-121
VMFA-121 Pilots are scheduled to conduct a series of qualification flights on Wasp over a multi-day period. Following qualifications, the F-35B’s and 2,300 Marines that make up the 31st MEU will deploy aboard ships of the Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group for follow-on operations in the Indo-Pacific region as part of a routine patrol to strengthen regional alliances, provide rapid-response capability and advance the ‘Up-Gunned ESG’ concept.
The ‘Up-gunned ESG’ is a U.S. Pacific-fleet initiated concept that aims to provide lethality and survivability to a traditional three-ship amphibious ready group by integrating multi-mission surface combatants and F-35B into amphibious operations. By adding these enabling capabilities, the amphibious force can more effectively defend against adversarial threats in the undersea, surface and air domains, as well provide offensive firepower to strike from the sea.
The 31st MEU is the only forward-deployed MEU in the region. The F-35B serves as one airframe within a multitude of air capabilities of the MEU’s Air Combat Element. Air, ground and logistics forces make up the MEU’s Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), a composite of capabilities that allow the MEU, in partnership with Navy amphibious ships, to conduct a wide-range of missions from crisis response to disaster relief.
Uss Wasp ESG and US Navy 7th Fleet
The arrival of the F-35B culminates testing and shipboard structural modifications on Wasp that began in 2013. Wasp completed an overhaul in 2017 and subsequently departed Norfolk to forward-deploy to Sasebo, Japan, as part of a Department of Defense effort to place the most advanced capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.
The Wasp ESG is on a routine patrol in the Indo-Pacific, providing U.S. 7th Fleet with a rapid-response capability in the event of a contingency and working with partners and allies to increase combined capacity for regional security.
Seventh Fleet, which celebrates its 75th year in 2018, spans more than 124 million square kilometres–stretching from the International Date Line to the India/Pakistan border and from the Kuril Islands in the North to the Antarctic in the South.
Seventh Fleet’s area of operation encompasses 36 maritime countries and 50 percent of the world’s population with between 50-70 U.S. ships and submarines, 140 aircraft and approximately 20,000 Sailors in the 7th fleet.
Source, video and photo credits: US Marine Corps, US Marine Corps/Cpl. Bernadette Wildes, U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Molina/Released