The Marine Corps’ next-generation fighter took to the skies last week with its military contemporaries during Red Flag, the military’s premier advanced aerial combat training exercise.
Six jets with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 flew to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on the north edge of Las Vegas, to join with nearly 100 aircraft for the Red Flag 16-3, the third of four air-to-air exercises the Air Force is hosting this year in the vast Nevada Test and Training Range. Aircraft participating in the exercise, which began July 11 and runs through July 29, are practicing a wide range of missions including aerial combat, attack and close-air support in mock war games against opposing forces.
This Red Flag marks a debut of sorts for the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and VMFA-121, which one year ago became the military’s first operational F-35 squadron. Last December, the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station, Ariz.-based squadron practiced expeditionary operations while supporting 1st Marine Division units during exercise Steel Knight across southern California, and it has continued to build up its flight and operational experience ahead of this first large-scale, multi-service exercise.
“It’s a historic time,” Lt. Col. James T. Bardo, VMFA-121’s commander, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a video posted on YouTube. “To be part of this Air Force exercise is a great learning experience for our squadron, for our pilots as well as for the participants in the exercise because it’s their first opportunity to see the F-35, see what we do well.”
The Marine Corps plans to replace its jet fleet of Harriers, F/A-18 Hornets and EA-6B Prowlers with 420 F-35s. It stood up its second F-35B squadron on June 30 at Yuma when VMA-211 was redesignated from an AV-8B Harrier squadron to the Lightning II. The Corps plans to forward-base and deploy the first squadron to the western Pacific in 2017, although the aircraft continues to undergo additional testing and software and systems upgrades from the existing Block 2B configuration to full-mission capability Block 3F.
The Marine Corps is buying the single-seat F-35B, the vertical take-off and landing version of the next-generation Joint Strike Fighter. The Navy and Air Force are procuring JSF models designed for carrier-based or conventional landing, respectively, for air-to-ground operations. The Air Force is expecting to have its first operational squadron later this year. In late June, the F-35B made its first transatlantic crossing when three jets flew from Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station, S.C., to England, where the jet participated in the Royal International Air Tattoo at Royal Air Force Base Fairford and Farnborough International Air Show. The jet has garnered interest from international buyers, including the United Kingdom, which plans to buy about 140 of the jets for its Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
Next year, the squadron, nicknamed the “Green Knights,” will be forward-deployed to Iwakuni MCAS in Japan. There, it will join 1st MAW and support 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and III Marine Expeditionary Force.