Marine Corps F-35Bs could make debut in Afghanistan, report says
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2018
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Marine Corps F-35B Lightning fighter jet could fly its first ever combat mission over Afghanistan in the coming days, CNN reported Wednesday.
The stealth aircraft were traveling from the Gulf of Aden to the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Essex amphibious assault ship on Wednesday morning, CNN reported, citing an unnamed official.
The fifth-generation fighter jets had been conducting reconnaissance missions in Somalia and were ready to provide close air support to U.S. forces in the country, but were never needed for that purpose, CNN said.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday that it was aware of the report but would not comment on future operations.
The F-35Bs are attached to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which left San Diego with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group on July 10. The group’s flagship, a big-deck amphibious assault ship, can carry up to six F-35Bs, a variant designed to land vertically and take off from shorter distances than other jets.
Lockheed Martin, the jet’s primary contractor, touts the F-35 line — the costliest aircraft program in U.S. history — as combining stealth capabilities, supersonic speed, extreme agility and state-of-the-art sensors.
Critics in Congress have questioned the F-35B’s combat readiness, citing a string of software, engine and weapons systems problems, but U.S. military officials have promised the glitches are being resolved.
News of the jets’ possible use in Afghanistan came as the United Nations expressed concern over a surge in civilian casualties caused by airstrikes in the country.
The U.N. Mission in Afghanistan said 21 civilians, including children, were killed in two separate airstrikes over the weekend. It was unclear whether the strikes were carried out by Afghan or U.S. forces.
In the first six months of the year, UNAMA documented 353 civilian casualties, including 149 deaths, from airstrikes, a 52 percent increase from the same period in 2017.
The spike corresponds with an uptick in U.S. air power under the Trump administration’s strategy to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.