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F-35B Begins New ‘Operational Readiness Inspection’ This Week Before IOC Decision

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Operational and Test Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 22 prepares to touch down aboard Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Oct. 9. US Marine Corps photo.

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Operational and Test Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 22 prepares to touch down aboard Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Oct. 9. US Marine Corps photo.

A previous version of this story indicated the U.S. Marine Corps flies F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets. In fact, the USMC flies the F/A-18 C/D Hornet. The post has been amended.

PENTAGON – The Marine Corps added one final test before deciding whether to declare initial operational capability for the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF): a first-ever Operational Readiness Inspection.

The ORI for the first F-35B squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, is scheduled to begin today and will last four or five days. An inspection team – with members from Headquarters Marine Corps, the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) school and the Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFA-T) 501 – will “assess them from a maintenance perspective, a sustainment perspective and an operations perspective,” deputy commandant for aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis told USNI News on July 8.

“We have a team of about 12 people going out to assess everything from maintenance to NATOPS (Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization) knowledge,” he said.
“There’s 10 items on a Commander of Naval Air Forces inspection, maintenance inspection; we’re going to go out and out of those 10 say, give us these five. And then we’ll look and if there’s problems with those five we’ll go deeper.”

In addition to that maintenance test, the ORI will also include assessments of five areas of flight operations with live ordnance at up to a division-level context. The last day will be a “surge day,” during which every person in the squadron will be involved in a mission set either on actual planes or in a simulator.

At the end of the week, Davis will meet with the assessment team in person to go over the results.

“we’ll assess, we’ll take a look, we’ll look for the goods and the others,” he said.
“And then what I’ll do is I’ll look in the aggregate about the requirements for this squadron being able to go to war with an F-35 and sustain operations from a deployed base, and I’ll make a recommendation to [Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Joseph] Dunford based on what I see out there, and he’ll either declare IOC or he won’t.”

Davis admitted his key concern is spare parts.

“Do we have the depth in supply to support a combat deployment?” he said.
“If there’s any one area I’m worried about, it’s that.”

When Davis became deputy commandant for aviation last year, he said he had a chart with the status of 14 different areas, color-coded green, yellow or red based on their readiness levels.

“When I got here a year ago … there was not a lot of green, a lot of yellow, some red. That chart right now is pretty much all green. Still a little bit of yellow in spares, we’re going to assess that. But for the most part we’re in good shape.”

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, Headquarters Marine Corps, highlights the importance of the service’s aviation mission during Naval Air System’s Command’s fifth annual Acquisition Leadership Symposium held Aug. 14, 2014. US Navy Photo

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, Headquarters Marine Corps, highlights the importance of the service’s aviation mission during Naval Air System’s Command’s fifth annual Acquisition Leadership Symposium held Aug. 14, 2014. US Navy Photo

He said the crews are well trained and the aircraft itself brings a greater capability than the Marine’s legacy F/A-18 Hornets, AV-8B Harriers and EA-6B Prowlers it replaces. But the logistics supply chain needs to be solid because once Dunford declares IOC, the first squadron could deploy at any time.

“Just like the V-22, we declared IOC in 2007; a couple weeks later, we deployed to Iraq right away,” Davis said. VMFA 121 is set for a permanent change of station to Japan in January 2017, but they could potentially deploy sooner if called upon. Therefore, Davis said, his threshold for recommending an IOC declaration is, “could we take this squadron and go over to the Middle East tomorrow after Gen. Dunford declares IOC, yes or no?”

Davis said he would not prejudge the results of the ORI, but he expects the squadron will prove ready for IOC. During operational testing aboard USS Wasp (LHD-1), JSF-trained pilots worked alongside the ship’s crew that had never worked with the aircraft before, creating a steep learning curve for both the Marines and the sailors onboard. But Davis said everything went well – they flew all required test points, qualified all pilots for day operations, qualified some for night operations, and trained some of the landing safety officers and deck crew for future JSF operations.

The Marines even flew an F-35 engine out to the ship on a cradle slung under an MV-22 Osprey, which many believed would be challenging if not impossible to do, Davis said.

After dropping live ordnance earlier this month, all that stands between the F-35B and its introduction to the fleet is the ORI – an assessment that comes from the British military. Davis said he did an exchange tour when he was a captain, and before certifying the first GR5-variant Harrier squadron, an assessment team came in to ensure the squadron could meet the full range of NATO requirements. Davis said he liked the idea of having one last check from those who know the program best before officially green-lighting the squadron, and he decided several months ago to bring the tradition to the U.S.

“A lot of people said, or had conjecture, that the Marines, me, were just going to declare IOC regardless. You have 10 jets, you’re going to declare,” he said.
“We have a very stringent requirement for what the airplanes are able to do, and we were hell-bent on measuring and making sure we had what we said we were going to have in order to declare initial operating capability.”

  • CharleyA

    The last time I checked, the Marines do not operate any Super Hornets.

    • NeilMarshall

      It’s a PR story – the F-35B ain’t ready to go to war.

      • Ctrot

        And how do you know this?

        • NeilMarshall

          Look at the projected timeline for the software upgrades which unlock a series of capabilities. Even the current Block hasn’t been fully cleared yet. On top of that, it was confirmed in Congress less than two months ago that the maintenance hours per flight hour remains unacceptably high, with the much vaunted ALIS system still essentially useless. The F135 engine flex problem remains unresolved etc etc. Why didn’t you know all this? By the by, I have tried to post factual responses to the two points below, but it appears that the moderators are not permitted to encourage free speech – I thought that was in the Constitution….

          • Ctrot

            I do know those issues, and so does Lt Gen Davis, and his opinion is what matters not yours nor mine.

          • NeilMarshall

            Then I feel sorry for this decent man being placed in the unenviable position of having to defend the indefensible.

          • god loves you

            I do not feel sorry for him; he is executing his assigned task. If he cannot garner sufficient intestinal fortitude to provide an honorable review he needs to be pitied not felt sorry for. Men and women’s lives can depend his
            on standing and delivering.

          • NeilMarshall

            There is a statistically poor correlation between Lt. Gen. Jon Davis’ intestinal fortitude and the failures of Lockheed Martin and the JPO. Nothing he does is going to make the F-35B in its current pre-production state function adequately.

          • god loves you

            As a taxpayer at 40% rate, if nothing Jon Davis does will assist the aircraft production process, said Davis should return my money.

          • Richard Neal Price

            Alright Neeeeil, if you are gonna start bad mouthing my work and now my life’s work, we Have a problem…

          • NeilMarshall

            Oh dear…..lets not let facts get in the way of emotion….

          • RedStatePatriot

            “The F135 engine flex problem remains unresolved etc” False, Pratt & Whitney has a fix of a pre-trench for existing aircraft, and a series of break-in flight procedures for new aircraft. The hard rub issue is a non-issue. Second, most all aircraft start initial deployment at this phase, it gives the flight crews and pilots time to become more familiar to the aircraft. There is no pressing reason the aircraft would need to go straight to combat at this point unless the situation were dire.

            All aircraft must start deployment at some point, few are fully developed at that point. The only way you will get supply line logistics and maintenance costs out is to start fielding squadrons.

          • USNVO

            You points, even if true, are irrelevant.

            First, just because it has 2B software that is less capable than 3F software, it doesn’t mean 2B isn’t good enough to place the aircraft in service. The F-16 entered service able to carry AIM-9 and dumb bombs, that was it. So if your only argument is 2B doesn’t fully utilize the aircraft hardware, so what?

            Second, lots of maintenance hours per flight. Again, so what. If maintenance hours per flight was an issue, the B-2 wouldn’t be in service. The Marines obviously think the numbers will go down over time and it is one squadron, so they will live with it. In fact, the only way to mature the system is to put it in service. But again, number of maintenance hours doesn’t mean it can’t be put in service, just that it will cost more.

            Third, there is no F135 “flex” problem. There was an excessive rubbing and heating before breakin problem that has been fixed and the USMC aircraft have been retrofitted. So again, we see the problem is fixed. To use the F-16 as an example, even years after introduction, they had less than 50pct readiness because of the numerous issues with the F100. The F135 is vastly better than that, even if still being matured.

            So basically, you have two irrelevant points and one outright false assertion. Why didn’t you know this?

    • Secundius

      @ CharleyA.

      If the Marines, were required to have the Super Hornet airframe. It would be the EA-18G Growler, but preferably a “Growler” version of the F/A-35B or C…

  • Ronsoppinion

    All the reports lately on the F35B have been quite upbeat, perhaps this aircraft is coming good, they have handed it over to the Marine’s and there have been some good reports from them, the AV8b is being retired early, has the F35B been a deliberate source of mis-information as this aircraft is supposedly a technological marvel, I shall wait and see.

    • Frank Finn

      Jeff and Ronsoppinion, I recall that right from the beginning of the program there was a plan in place to build an EA-6 replacement for the Marines by replacing the vertical lift fan and equipment from the B model and utilize the resulting empty bay for the electronics, The aircraft would no longer have the STOVL abilities of the Marine version but the airframe would otherwise be the same to enhance logistics support. That is why the Marines did not acquire the EA-18G to replace the Prowler. It would have meant adding the Super Hornet airframe to the models needing support.

      • Ronsoppinion

        To Frank Finn and Jeff, It seem’s to me when the Marine’s acquired the AV8 B they were sold on STOVL giving close air support in any type of environments, the EA-6 and EA-18G although fine aircraft would always need a landing strip, hence when the F35 B appeared it was the answer, one problem I see with the F35 B the weapons bay under the aircraft is small and need’s enlarging, it is also a heavy aircraft under-powered, should have been duel engine’s (some test pilot’s have named it the flying brick ) there is talk of it being a bomber, in due cause maybe a lot of problem will be ironed out, there is a lot invested in this aircraft.

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  • Jeff

    Since when, not to mention how, is the F-35 a replacement for the EA-6B? Jamming pods are not compatible with stealth and neither are externally-carried HARMs, which is the only possible way an F-35 could carry them (assuming they’re ever tested and certified to do so, which they are currently not). Media releases from both LM and DoD started mentioning that the EA-6B is to be replaced by the F-35 a few months ago and the media just repeat it unquestioningly. It needs to be questioned.

    • GaryLockhart

      The Marine Corps will not sunset the EA-6B until fourth quarter of CY 2019 at the earliest. That’s over four years away. History has shown that one of the Corps’ strongest character traits is its ability to innovate and think outside of the box. There’s nothing stopping Marine aviation from adapting the ALQ-99 or the NGJ for deployment on the Lightning II. In addition the Corps has also been on track to deploying one tactical airframe for many years. This is nothing new.

      You might want to find out how many ATOs that Prowler and Growler squadrons have executed providing SEAD to “stealth” platforms which we were told for many years required no SEAD because they were “invisible to RADAR”. Those of us in the EW community knew that that was a load of bull but it didn’t stop the air force from peddling that kool aid to a bunch of ignorant neophytes.

      Many people have underestimated and questioned the Corps in the past only to end up eating a lot of crow. Bon appetit.

  • Steve Richmond

    Small nitpic – The ORI (Operational Readiness Inspection) has been around the US Armed Forces for a very long time. It originated in the Strategic Air Command in the very early 1950s when then MGen LeMay instituted a series of no notice, full unit operational inspections that tested SAC units during maximum effort exercises. They became known as ORI’s. If a unit failed or showed a major discrepancy those responsible were immediately relieved, LeMay commenting that “I am disinclined to differentiate between the incompetent and merely unlucky.”

    • Jeff

      No one said the ORI is a new invention. What’s happening here is an ORI is being done as a final check before IOC is declared.

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  • Richard Neal Price

    Excuse me Gen. Davis, It IS the end of the week, Any News???

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