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GAO report outlines plan to disperse F-35s if Pacific war breaks out

Two U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aircraft from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, drop munitions at the Pilsung Range, South Korea on Aug. 31, 2017.

ALEX ECHOLS/U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 27, 2018

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – If war breaks out in the Pacific, U.S. military commanders may disperse F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters in small detachments to outmaneuver the enemy, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

“The Department of Defense … is increasing focus on the Pacific where potential adversaries including China and North Korea have made provocations,” says the report released Wednesday.

Sixteen F-35Bs that have been flying out of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, since January 2017, represent the first overseas stationing of America’s most advanced stealth fighter since its development.

“DOD expects to use the F-35’s air combat capabilities along with a basing strategy known as distributed operations – where for example, aircraft disperse into smaller detachments to outmaneuver the enemy – to counter any regional threats,” the report says.

The Marines’ short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant of the joint strike fighter could be part of such a strategy. Last month, F-35Bs from Iwakuni’s Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 landed aboard the USS Wasp for the first time during the amphibious assault ship’s inaugural patrol of the Western Pacific.

Brad Glosserman, a visiting American professor at Tokyo's Tama University, said the Pearl Harbor attack that brought the United States into World War II showed the importance of dispersing forces in wartime. The Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers weren’t in port when the attack happened and were key offensive weapons when the U.S. struck back.

Experts believe a North Korean missile launch in March 2017 was designed to simulate a nuclear attack on MCAS Iwakuni, where the F-35Bs are based.

Also last year, it was revealed that the Chinese military had built missile-test ranges that appeared to model U.S. military bases in Japan.

Glosserman said North Korea lacks the capability to target dispersed U.S. forces, though China has many short- and medium-range missiles that could.

The F-35B’s ability to take off and land without a long runway would appear to give commanders more flexibility in dispersing their forces. However, the GAO report noted some challenges the Marines have faced supporting distributed operations with the jets to date.

The GAO recommended in unclassified findings from a classified March report that the military test sustaining and operating the F-35 while disconnected from its automatic logistics information system for extended periods.

The system collects and analyses data about such things as mission-planning, training, maintenance and parts orders to keep aircraft ready to fly, Wednesday’s report says.

The classified report also recommended that the Marine Corps commandant “assess the risks associated with key supply chain-related challenges related to operating and sustaining the F-35 in the Pacific and determine how to mitigate these risks … [and] determine the F-35’s ability to support distributed operations through the use of exercises and/or analyses.”

The latest report notes some of the F-35’s unique capabilities, including advanced stealth, seamless communication, laser precision, virtual reality and an automated sustainment system.

“While the Marine Corps recognizes the advanced warfighting capabilities the F-35 will bring to the Pacific, it is facing challenges operating in the area,” the report says. “In particular, it is uncertain how long the F-35 can effectively operate if [the automatic sustainment system] becomes disconnected from the aircraft.”

The report notes the F-35B’s participation in a number of exercises since 2015, including Red Flag and Northern Edge drills in Alaska in 2016 and 2017, and recommends that the military make operational lessons learned about the aircraft available across all services.

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @SethRobson1

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