Despite setbacks, Marines' 1st F-35 squadron right on track, service says

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., performs a vertical landing while an air traffic controller observes from a mock air control tower at an auxiliary landing field, Monday, April 27, 2015. The landing field simulates an aircraft carrier flight deck.



SAN DIEGO — Despite setbacks, the Marine Corps’ variant of the Joint Strike Fighter is still on track to reach initial operational capability by July, Marines said this week.

To declare initial operational capability, or IOC, the Corps’ first F-35 squadron must show that the stealthy jets can perform several specific types of operational missions and that the squadron can maintain the aircraft at home and at sea.

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 stood up in Yuma, Ariz., in 2012 to be the first operational F-35 squadron in the U.S. military, but the bulk of the first year was devoted to getting all the pilots and maintainers trained on the new aircraft, said Maj. John Price, the unit’s executive officer.

Since then, the Marines have been working on developmental and operational tests even while dealing with software delays and other problems such as an engine failure in Florida that grounded the fleet last year.

“We’ve had those challenges across the board as we discover things about the aircraft, but in each case, we’ve been able to identify the problem, identify the fix and solution, and also potentially a workaround that allows us to continue down the path and train,” Price said.

Because the fifth-generation fighter jet is software-driven and each update unlocks capabilities, the delays have meant the squadron has been sidelined multiple times during the testing process while it waits for the next version.

The setbacks certainly aren’t the first for the $400 billion program, which has already far exceeded the schedule and cost constraints originally outlined for it by Congress.

In April, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program’s executive officer, told a House Armed Services Committee that the program is making “slow but steady progress on all fronts” but that the production line is running two months behind schedule.

Though the price continues to decrease, each jet is expected to cost between $80 million and $85 million by 2019.

The fighters also are still using a temporary engine fix after an Air Force F-35 caught fire at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in June last year, resulting in the grounding of the entire fleet. A Governmental Accountability Office report in April rated the single engine’s reliability “very poor,” saying it was “failing at a much greater rate and requiring more maintenance than expected.”

Even after the fighter jets were allowed to fly again, they were restricted to a certain number of flight hours before the engines had to be inspected, Price said.

Eight months later, “we’re basically past all that,” he said. “We’ve established the workaround procedures, how we get our motors healthy, and we’ve moved on.”

Now the Marines are looking forward to the F-35B’s first operational test at sea and for the clearance to begin live-fire training. They also are still waiting on the software upgrades they need “to fully employ the aircraft,” Price said, though they anticipate having it in time to declare IOC by July 1.

For IOC, the squadron jets must be able to do close-air support, limited defensive and offensive counterair, aerial interdiction, assault support escort and reconnaissance missions and to generally support a Marine air-ground task force.

The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps will all use the F-35, though each has its own version. The Air Force and Marine Corps versions look very similar, but the Marine Corps’ F-35B has the ability to land vertically and take off from a short runway, such as on an amphibious assault ship. The Navy’s F-35C has a longer wingspan and a tail hook to allow it to launch and land on an aircraft carrier.

In the Marine Corps, the F-35 will eventually replace the F/A-18 Super Hornet, AV-8B Harrier and EA-6B Prowler.

Price, a former Harrier pilot, said he has a soft spot in his heart for the AV-8B, but said the F-35 is “a huge step forward relative basically to all the fourth-generation fighters out there,” particularly from the standpoint of situational awareness.

In the Joint Strike Fighter, Price said, pilots will get a far greater awareness of what’s going on outside the aircraft because the jet takes the inputs from all the sensors — radar, electronic warfare, infrared and more — and presents it to the pilot in a “fused picture of the battle space,” he said.

Though the Harrier has short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities, the F-35B’s controls are configured to reduce the pilot’s workload and allow him or her greater capacity to focus on what’s going on outside the airplane, Price said.

“It’s a huge win,” he said.

Twitter: @jhlad

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., performs a short takeoff as part of required training at the station's auxiliary landing field, Monday, April 27, 2015. The landing field simulates the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.