Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Washington, DC, United States (4E) – USS Wasp (LHD-1), a Landing Helicopter Dock amphibious assault ship, has become the first warship in the U.S. Navy to operationally deploy the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), also known as the “Green Knights” based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan recently landed on the Wasp, which is also described as a “small aircraft carrier.”
VMFA-121 pilots will first practice and conduct qualification flights for the first few weeks before they head out for missions as part of the 31st MEU, the only forward-deployed MEU in the Pacific. The drills are a part of a multi-mission ‘up-gunned (expeditionary strike group)’ concept, which strings together the lethality of the MEU, the F-35s and offensive capabilities of surface ships, the release said.
Operated only by the United States Marine Corps, the F-35B doesn’t need to operate out of Navy Nimitz-class supercarriers, which are the main targets of the long-range ballistic missile defense system that underpins China’s A2/AD strategy.
The F-35B is the “Short/Vertical Take-Off and Landing” (S/VTOL) version of the famous stealth fighter. It can hover like a helicopter and launched from any place with a flat surface a few hundred feet or more in size.
VMFA-121 aboard the Wasp has trained heavily on a new set of tactics meant to keep the U.S. dominant in the Pacific. Exploiting the (S/VTOL ability of the F-35B, pilots and maintainers drilled on setting-up improvised refuel and reloading points, and how to quickly re-stock the stealth fighter for battle
“You can fly the F-35B literally anywhere,” said Lt. Col David Berke of the U.S .Marine Corps and a retired F-35B squadron commander. “If your traditional places of operation are unavailable” — probably because of the damage to airfields — “the F-35B can be there.”
“Find me 600 feet of flat surface anywhere in the world, and I can land there,” said Berke.
The arrival of the F-35Bs from VMFA-121 marks the start of the fighter’s first deployment to a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). VMFA-121 will patrol the Pacific from the Wasp, which will be escorted by other Navy warships assigned to Marine Expeditionary Unit 31 or the 31st MEU, the only forward deployed MEU.
The Marines currently have one MEU deployed to Asia, the 31st MEU in Okinawa, Japan. The 31st is one of seven MEUs. Three MEUs are on the West Coast of the U.S. for operations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans (11th, 13th and 15th MEUs) and three on the East Coast for operations in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
“Pairing F-35B Lightning II with the Wasp represents one of the most significant leaps in warfighting capability for the Navy-Marine Corps team in our lifetime,” said Rear Admiral Charles Cooper II, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Seven. “This 5th generation stealth jet is extremely versatile, and will greatly enhance and expand our operational capabilities.”
“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 make us a more lethal and effective Marine air-ground task force.”
Deployment of the F-35B enhances the full range of expeditionary strike group capabilities with one of the world’s most technologically-advanced air warfare platforms. With the specific upgrades Wasp has received, the Navy-Marine Corps team in the Pacific is better positioned than ever before to support its commitment to the security of Japan and the region.
“You’re about to put for the first time ever fifth-generation fighters on a ship at sea and put it into a highly contested area that is fraught with geopolitical risk and controversy and tensions,” said Berke.
“The implications of a fifth-generation airplane being in (the Pacific) is impossible to overstate,” he noted. “They’re going to provide capability that nobody knows exists yet.”
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