Marines deploy F-35B fighters on Navy ship in Pacific for first time
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 5, 2018
The Marine Corps has deployed its most advanced, multirole strike fighter aboard a Navy ship for the first time in the Pacific.
A detachment of F-35B Lightning IIs with Fighter Attack Squadron 121 – based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan – landed aboard the amphibious-assault ship USS Wasp on Sunday and Monday.
The Navy, which did not disclose the location of the Wasp or the number of F-35B fighters landing on it, touted the event as a new era of “up-gunned” air-sea capability.
“Pairing F-35B Lightning IIs with the Wasp represents one of the most significant leaps in warfighting capability for the Navy-Marine Corps team in our lifetime,” Rear Adm. Brad Cooper, Task Force 76 commander, said in a Navy statement.
“This 5th generation stealth jet is extremely versatile and will greatly enhance and expand our operational capabilities.”
The F-35Bs – capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings – are under the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, the only forward-deployed MEU in the region, the Navy said.
“This is a historic deployment,” Col. Tye Wallace, 31st MEU commander, said in the statement. “The F-35B is the most capable aircraft ever to support a Marine rifleman on the ground.”
The stealth fighters are intended to both make precision strikes inland and to support Marines inserting ashore, the Navy said. They will also provide air defense for the strike group.
The pilots of the fighter attack squadron are scheduled to conduct a series of qualification flights on the Wasp in upcoming days, the Navy said.
After those qualifications, the F-35Bs and about 2,300 Marines from the 31st MEU will deploy aboard ships of the Wasp strike group for operations in the Indo-Pacific region, the Navy said.
The F-35B further advances the Pacific Fleet’s goal of an up-gunned expeditionary strike group, which aims to provide lethality and survivability to the traditional three-ship amphibious ready group, the Navy said.
It does that by pairing troop-carrying amphibious ships with surface vessels, such as guided-missile destroyers. The strike group is intended to effectively defend against undersea, surface and air threats, with firepower still available for an offensive strike from sea, the Navy said.
The beefed-up capabilities are in part a response to the growing military dominance by China in the South China Sea, where it has built artificial islands and constructed facilities that could be used by the military, particularly by fighter jets.
The arrival of the F-35B culminates testing and shipboard structural modifications on the Wasp that began in 2013, the Navy said. The ship completed an overhaul last year, and on Saturday departed Sasebo, Japan, where it is forward deployed.
Scheduled to support the strike group’s operations are the guided-missile destroyers USS Dewey and USS Sterett, which both carry helicopter strike squadrons.
“With the specific upgrades Wasp has received, the Navy Marine Corps team in the Pacific is better positioned than ever before to support our commitment to the security of Japan and the Region,” Wasp commander Capt. Colby Howard said in the Navy statement.