Marine Corps’ Joint Strike Fighter Prepares for Combat

National Defense Magazine // August 18, 2016

On a flight line in the hot and dusty desert near Las Vegas, military aircraft queued to take off. F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-22 Raptors and KC-135 Stratotankers were on the flight line. But it was the F-35B joint strike fighter, making its appearance for the first time at the famed Red Flag exercise, that caught everyone’s eyes.

During Red Flag 16-3 — an advanced aerial combat training exercise — the aircraft participated in a series of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, Marine Corps officials said.

The exercise marked another milestone in the aircraft’s journey toward deployment and flying in combat. Last year, the Marine Corps declared the F-35B operational, more than three years later than originally planned. In late June, a trio of aircraft landed for the first time in the United Kingdom in conjunction with the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough Air Show. That same month, the Marines stood up a second F-35 squadron to be based in Yuma, Arizona.

At a briefing with reporters during Red Flag, Lt. Col. J.T. Bardo, commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, the service’s first F-35 squadron, said the Marine Corps was thrilled to debut the aircraft at the exercise.

“These opportunities are rare … so we are very excited to be here to bring the F-35 to the exercise, capitalize on its strengths and integrate with all the other … [aircraft] that are out there,” he said.

Red Flag 16-3 lasted for three weeks in July. During the briefing — which took place a week into the exercise — Bardo said the F-35B had so far participated in every training scenario and performed well.

Having the joint strike fighter at Red Flag — which included a detachment of six airplanes — was invaluable training, said Air Force Col. Bradley Bird, vice wing commander of the 552 air control wing at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, who was at Red Flag monitoring safety.

The services can better understand the strengths of the plane and how it can be “integrated with all of the other fighters to include fifth-gen F-22 … [and] fourth-generation F-15, F-16, etc.,” he said. It “is invaluable to be able to bring them out and get our first look.”

Red Flag is so far the largest exercise that the F-35B has participated in, Bardo said. “Since IOC we have done numerous different events between the Marine Corps and the Navy and the Air Force,” he said. “This is probably the first exercise of this magnitude.” About 100 aircraft and 3,500 personnel attended Red Flag 16-3, Bird said.

The aircraft dropped live ordnance, including laser-guided and precision-guided weapons weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds.

The service’s fifth-generation fighter — which has faced cost overruns and schedule slippage — will replace aging Harriers, Hornets and Prowlers, said Gen. Robert B. Neller, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. With a second squadron now in place, the service is looking toward deploying the aircraft abroad.

“We’re going to start to see that airplane deploy … overseas after the first of the year,” he said during remarks at a Washington, D.C.-based think tank in August.

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