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The F-35B: From ‘Probation’ To Transformation

Posted by Robbin Laird on


BF-02 Flight 197. Asymmetric External Stores Testing on 14 June 2012 with CDR Eric Buus as the pilot.

F-35B flies with asymmetric weapons load.

When Defense Secretary Bob Gates put the F-35B on “probation” and Sen. John McCain became his powerful echo chamber, we responded on the pages of Breaking Defense that these actions were misguided.

We had spent many hours with the pilots, maintainers, builders, designers, and testers of the aircraft, and came to a very different conclusion: “The F-35B – the Marines vertical takeoff version of the Joint Strike Fighter — is just one example of unique game changers.It permits a significant increase in strategic and tactical potential across a force, across a fleet, and leverages new platforms being introduced to shape an innovative future.”

We thought Sen. McCain was just missing the point: “The JSF is a fleet, not a single plane. The senator never mentions the allies to whom the U.S. has committed to produce this aircraft soon and in manufactured numbers. The allies are completely missing in the senator’s worldview, which is so Inside the Beltway.”

When critics of the program convinced Secretary Gates to put the F-35B on probation in 2011, the Marines did not waver, even in the face of mounting criticism and wavering support for the plane inside the Pentagon. At the time, then-Lt. Gen. George Trautman, the deputy Commandant for aviation, said: “We knew that the problems with the aircraft were relatively minor and could be easily corrected. We were also confident that the UK would eventually reverse their hasty decision to opt for another JSF variant. For the Marine Corps and our allies, the F-35B represents an exponential increase in operational capability and there never was a moment when we considered taking a different TACAIR path.”

Now, with the decision by Gen. Joseph Dunford, Marine Commandant, to declare the F-35B operationally ready, one should focus on how the plane will impact the other US services and the allies. The declaration of IOC is not a huge event in and of itself. Instead, it is the starting point on a decade of fundamental transformation made possible by the emergence of an F-35 global fleet.

This global fleet will build a foundation for a fundamental change in the way air power operates in overall combat concepts of operations. The impact of an integrated fleet with fused data for pilots and also distributed information to other sources, will allow the US and its allies to rethink how to do 21st century air-enabled operations.

Core US allies soon to go IOC with their own F-35Bs see the Marines as change agents. A key example is Britain’s Royal Air Force, which is training with the Marines in the United States, and will build their first operational squadron in the United States and then fly to the UK in 2017 to embark on their new carrier.

The UK Case

At Beaufort, as at Luke AFB between the USAF and the RAAF, planes are pooled. As Squadron Leader Hugh Nichols from the RAF and based at Beaufort noted: “Our aircraft are pooled with those of the Marines, and we fly aircraft in the pool, not just the UK jet.”

He then went on to note that: “The Marines have done a fantastic job working through previous program difficulties and have blazed a trail towards bringing this next generation capability into service. They are Marines, and if anything gets in the way, they deal with it.

“And the pooling agreement is important in terms of cross learning. Our young maintainers are working with Marine Corps maintainers and they are learning to work through different procedures and protocols to learn how to maintain a common airplane.”

The Brits are training at Beaufort on F-35 equipment at the base – including the simulators – while their own facilities are stood up in the UK and the squadron grows before returning to the UK to get ready to work with the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The Brits are integrated members of the squadron and the Marine Corps and British maintainers are learning together how to adapt their specific maintenance protocols – which are different – to a common airplane.

Obviously, this will pay real dividends down the road in terms of being able to cross deploy at sea.

And the Brits recognized that a software upgradeable airplane requires continuous upgrades to stay at the leading edge so they are keeping a permanent detachment at Edwards AFB to remain engaged in the lifetime modernization envisaged for the F-35 global fleet.

The preparations for the F-35 coming to the UK has led to new working relationships with two theory F-35 partners, the Dutch, and Norwegians. They and the UK live in an increasingly tense neighborhood, under pressure from the Russians. “The majority of the operating areas big enough to fully utilize this aircraft will be out over the North Sea, so I can see us using this to our advantage by operating with our Northern European allies,” Nichols said. “I would anticipate that there will be a lot of cooperation with Norwegians, Danes or the Dutch as we bring this exciting aircraft into service on European soil. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you are in an A, a B or C, once airborne, the mission systems are the same.”

Such working relationships can be leveraged to reshape key challenges such as Baltic defense. The Norwegians, the Dutch, and — possibly — the Danes and the Finns will all have F-35s. There is no time gap within which the Russians can wedge their forces, for Norway and Denmark are not likely to stand by and watch the Russians do what they want in the Baltics.

Coming To The Pacific

The first US Marine squadron is slated to go to the Pacific and there is no theater where the demand for the aircraft will be greater or the demand side higher in the first decade of its service life. The US services and the allies view the plane as a means to an end – combat dominance via distributed operations.

We recently visited and spoke with senior officials in Honolulu about how the Marines and Pacific Fleet see the coming of the F-35 to their Area of Operations.

“With IOC I hope we can stop talking as much about a platform and what it can do as an airplane and continue the hammer-and-tongs with the business of true fifth generation integration across the warfighting domains. Our ability, as a Naval Expeditionary Force, to sense, visualize and understand a hugely complex environment, with F-35 as a critical transformative enabler, carries a significant competitive advantage,” Brig. Gen. C.J. Mahoney, deputy commander of Marine Corps Pacific forces, said at the end of July.

It cannot be overlooked that, as Marine pilots learn how to successfully fight the F-35B, some Marine squadrons will also fly the carrier version, the F-35C.

“I mentioned earlier that our task is clearly that we need to have the ability to operate where it matters and when it matters. The F-35 will enhance our ability to do so,” newly Senate-approved Vice Adm. John Aquilino, director of Maritime Force Pacific. “Although I am a naval aviator, I am not speaking as one when I make this point about the new aircraft. It is a force multiplier and enhancer — not just a new combat aircraft.  It clearly will enhance or air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities, but it as a deployed and integrated sensor aircraft it extends our reach and expands our flexibility and agility.”

One ally focused clearly on the impact of the Marines on defense transformation is Australia.The coming of the Marines to Darwin is not just about improving integration between ground forces; it is about interactive defense transformation including the F-35B and other elements. That really is the meaning of Dunford’s declaration of IOC for the F-35B. It is not the end of a process, but the next phase in dealing with advanced combat threats.

Robbin Laird, a defense consultant, is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and owner of the Second Line of Defense website. Ed Timperlake works with Laird.

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