US Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 conduct flight exercises to certify VMFA-314 as fully operational on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Dec. 3, 2020. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Leilani Cervantes, courtesy of DVIDS.
As the Marine Corps continues its pivot toward Force Design 2030, the service has announced a significant milestone. As of Thursday, the Marine Corps’ first F-35C Lightning II squadron is at full operating capability. Part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing located at Miramar in California, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 — the “Black Knights” — will deploy with the advanced stealth fighters at some point in the next year.
“VMFA-314 is the first F-35C squadron in the Marine Corps to declare [full operating capability],” Maj. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, 3rd MAW commanding general, said in a statement. “They are now full up round and bring the incredible 5th generation capability to 3rd MAW. They will deploy as part of a Carrier Strike Group next year.”
The Black Knights received their first F-35C on Jan. 21, 2020, and have been working to integrate the new aircraft since then. According to a Marine Corps statement, this preparation entailed numerous training cycles designed to test the operating capabilities of the airframe and build confidence with the Marines operating and maintaining the jets.
“Many hours were spent maintaining aircraft, launching and recovering aircraft in Miramar, at other military facilities, and aboard the ship to conduct the training required to meet these goals,” Maj. Derek Heinz, VMFA-314 operations officer, said.
The “C” version of the F-35 has similarities to other airframe variants. However, this variant is specifically designed to take off and land from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The Marine Corps is also acquiring another F-35 variant, the “B” model, which conducts vertical takeoffs and landings similar to those of the aging AV-8 “Harrier,” a workhorse for the Corps in recent decades.
According to Military.com, the F-35B has yet to reach full operating capability in the Marine Corps. However, unlike the F-35C, it has been used operationally since at least 2018. In that year, an F-35B marked its combat debut in Afghanistan with an airstrike. Additionally, F-35Bs deployed in 2018 aboard the USS Wasp and participated in a series of exercises from the ship with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
According to the Marine Corps’ 2019 aviation plan, the service planned to purchase a total of 420 F-35 “B” and “C” variants to completely replace the F/A-18s, EA-6Bs, and AV-8Bs currently in service. The Marine Corps intended to buy 353 of the “B” vertical-takeoff variant and 67 of the “C” carrier-based variant.
“This 5th generation stealth jet is extremely versatile, and will greatly enhance and expand our operational capabilities,” Rear Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of United States Naval Forces Central Command, said in a statement.
The next step for the pilots and crew of VMFA-314 is to prepare for deployment with their newly upgraded squadron. According to the Marine Corps, the squadron is entering “tailored ship’s training availability,” making it the first F-35C squadron in the Marine Corps to do so.
This training will consist of communication rehearsals, medical drills, flight operations, and shipboard drills conducted while underway, ensuring the squadron is prepared to deploy in support of maritime campaigns. From there, the squadron will embark on a deployment.
“The Marines of VMFA-314 have gained confidence in fighting this aircraft and feel confident we can do so in combat if called upon,” Heinz said.
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James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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