Home » Aviation » F-35B Tactics Evolving As Pilots’ Understanding Of Technology Matures

F-35B Tactics Evolving As Pilots’ Understanding Of Technology Matures

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 takes off during exercise Red Flag 16-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., July 20. This is the first time that the fifth generation fighter has participated in the multiservice air-to-air combat training exercise. US Marine Corps photo.

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 takes off during exercise Red Flag 16-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., July 20. This is the first time that the fifth generation fighter has participated in the multiservice air-to-air combat training exercise. US Marine Corps photo.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Marine Corps’ top aviator said the F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter pilots have matured in their understanding of the new platform in the year since the service declared initial operational capability (IOC), pushing themselves to push past planned tactics and create a new way of using the fifth-generation technology.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said today at an American Enterprise Institute event that he “stacked the deck” early with Top Gun graduates and weapons tactics instructors who could quickly understand the new plane and how to best use it. Over the last year, those Marines’ efforts have led to “unprecedented” successes in live and simulated tests, shooting down all targets and suffering no JSF losses in many cases.

Last summer, as a last step before recommending an IOC declaration, Davis tasked the first F-35B squadron with completing an operational readiness inspection – a test event borrowed from the Brits, he said.

As part of the test, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 performed an armed reconnaissance mission that can sometimes take AV-8B Harrier and F-18 Hornet pilots all day to complete.

“These guys went out there and they found all the targets very quickly and killed all the targets,” he said, noting the early proficiency of the squadron.
“Most importantly, … we put a radar [surface-to-air missile] out in the objective area. In the old days we’d have to go take care of the radar SAM, get somebody in to go take care of that because you don’t do armed reconnaissance, which is patrolling for targets out there, unless you’ve got a permissive threat environment and you beat that threat. These guys went out with the SAM in the area and did that and they killed the SAM.”

Fast forward a year, he said, and the squadron has gone from proficient to innovative.

Davis brought Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller to meet the pilots and learn about the planes and tactics. During the visit, the squadron was assigned two drills.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, Headquarters Marine Corps. US Navy Photo

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, Headquarters Marine Corps. US Navy Photo

The first was done with fewer planes than Davis thought was needed, but otherwise went according to plan. He said the pilots were given a scenario that was “very high-end, off the ship, go into the jaws of death, double-digit SAMs, fighter threat, and go after a very strategic target on the ground. I watched them do it as a foursome, which normally I would say it would be 13 or 14 airplanes normally, what I would do as [commanding officer] of the weapons school, which I was. … They killed the fighters, they killed the SAMs, they killed the target, they came home.

“What was most interesting to be was not what they did but how they did it. It was very much the maturation of the pilots and how they’re flying this airplane, how they’re using information, communicating with each other, sharing information,” he continued.
“It was more like watching a pack of dogs go after something. And it was force-on-force, it wasn’t scripted,” so their success – particularly with so few aircraft – was far from guaranteed.

The second drill, though, did not go as planned – in the best possible way, Davis said. The planes were to fly a close-air support mission through clouds at 1,000 feet, with the planes in the 3F configuration that allows for pylons to externally carry 18,000 pounds of bombs.

“I’m out there, the commandant of the Marine Corps is out there, I want to impress the commandant,” Davis said.
“This first scenario was awesome, and then right before the second scenario I said, are we ready to go? And this young major comes up … he goes, ‘we’re not going to do exactly what you want us to do.’ I’m like [eyes grow wide]. “Because we didn’t think the tasking was challenging enough. So we’ve got two that are slick and two that are loaded up as bomb trucks. We can do the job sir, don’t worry.’”

So two planes forfeited their external carry capacity in exchange for stealth, and “it was a work of art,” Davis said. The planes hit all their targets in five and a half minutes, with the four planes passing images through the clouds and successfully taking out the missile threat early on.

“I just watched, I’m like, that’s not how my brain works, but that is the way their brains are working,” he said.
“Gen.(Charles) Krulak, who I used to work for, said ‘you don’t man the equipment, you equip the man,’ so we’re equipping these young Marines, this generation that doesn’t know any bounds for latitude for technology, and they’re leveraging this technology and doing great things.”

After the event, Davis told USNI News that, in addition to the squadrons, the F-35B test squadron has been an agent for innovation with the new airplane.

“We have VMX-1, which is our test squadron. We put very creative folks in there and they’re asking why all the time,” he said.
“One, they’re actually getting the test plan we’ve got to do for the airplane to get the capabilities as quick as we can, but they’re also, they have tactical hunger and they want to do better and they see opportunities out there, can we do this, can we do this can we do this.”

  • RunningBear

    Yes, this is what we wanted. The USMC with state of the art first class equipment and the skills to apply them to the mission.

    No more struggling with “cast off” junk with baling wire and duct tape to “try” to attack the required missions.

    Semper Fi’


    • Sons of Liberty

      The whole reason and the only good out of the F35 the best fighting force the US has Finally get an airframe built for them.

    • Donald Carey

      I agree – the key point that still needs a LOT of work is getting rid of all the politically correct elements of our rules of engagement.

  • IOC? Farnborough? Red Flag? Fooling SAM sites? Air-to-air success? IMPOSSIBLE!!! Everybody knows this plane only exists on a PowerPoint. Yep, I read it on the Internet somewhere.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      Pierre Sprey of Kremlin Media Inc. says it’s terrible….. so…. who could argue with that!

      • Andre

        Who seems to think that he single-handedly designed all the 4th Generation fighters of the USAF…

  • Curtis Conway

    These operational innovations is the justification for the high cost of the F-35 Combat System. It truly is a game changer and fundamental leap in capability added to the Marine Combat Environment, and translates directly to the other services if they chose to let it be so.

    “…‘you don’t man the equipment, you equip the man,’ so we’re equipping these young Marines, this generation that doesn’t know any bounds for latitude for technology, and they’re leveraging this technology and doing great things.”

    How the other services should learn this lesson! It is going from “can we do this(?)”, to CAN WE DO THIS!!!

    Now is probably the time to Red Team it before they get too carried away.

    • Mook

      I’m praying that the positives are going to continue unnamed thru heavy use.

      • Curtis Conway

        I think ALIS is going to turn out to be one of the strongest aspects of success.

        • Mook

          We need some positives following the dismal numbers available on line.

          • Spencer Whitson

            92.3% availability for F-35As in Mountain Home.

          • Mook

            Very nice! It makes me hopeful.

          • Curtis Conway

            F-35 goes only uphill from here on out. Once testing is complete we can update the software, and start manufacturing them one a day.

    • Sons of Liberty

      The other services need to get their hour s&$) squared away. Frankly the F35 was purpose built for the USMC and time for them to exploited it. But let’s not get carried away the plane is a quantum leap form the Harrier and the F18. So it’s going to automatically improve tactics and open new operational opportunities. But we need to quickly find the weaknesses which it has it has deficincies in turning and outrunning a threats that we need to truly hammer the crews with so they can ensure their tactics don’t run into some future buzz saw of enemy fighter in the gray zone firing multiple Ir salvos that they can’t out turn nor out run.

      • Curtis Conway

        The F-35B was purpose built for the Marines. The F-35A was purpose built for the USAF and is the only unit with an internal gun. The F-35C was purpose built for the US Navy and has longer folding wings for deck storage, tail hook, and stronger landing gear with two tires on the front main. The ALIS was purpose built to support the entire fleet, coordinate maintenance and repair, and facilitate Joint Operations via Mission & Crypto Download. This is the first time all services have had an airborne integrated combat system with which to pursue combat operations.

        • Mook

          Times and media have changed greatly since the 1950s. I am a civilian historian who has taken an avid look at systems performance for 55 years now. My first brush was with Guardsmen in Sabres in the 1950s. The Sabre was our go to for the standard of excellence in air combat. We heard of the Sabre’s dominance over MIgs flown by unknown pilots from a “sanctuary” in China. What we NEVER heard was the Sabre pilots using the best of their planes to overcome a mixed bag of performance. Today the microscope of an uncautious media exposed faults and sensationalizes them. Given the HUGE leap forward we seem to be seeing in the F-35 the development time seems to have been over criticized. (edited for poor typing)

          • Curtis Conway

            The Engineering and Development model is quite a piece of work evidently, and the product is rock solid. Can’t wait to see that F-22 brought up to standards. An F-22 at F-35 Combat Systems standards would be another leap in that air defense equation we seek.

  • Bush+Obama=Satans love child

    Any General that says “I’m like” as much as him & has subordinates that don’t follow the parameters of an exercise he’s conducting to show the
    capabilities of the planes without full stealth features should be relieved of command. The reason they went 2 clean & 2 loaded is obviously done to avoid the possibilty of SAMs getting locks on the planes while clearing the way for the bomb truck versions of the plane. The pilots took the challange out of the excercise by doing it their way instead of following orders & performing an excersise that could save lives in real world actions.

    • SpudmanWP

      Ever heard of “Command Discretion”?

      They added the external loads to make it “more” challenging.

      If they went with the “script”, they would have all gone in clean and it would have been nothing different from the 1st test.

      btw, The 2B/3i jets are not even cleared for external loads and their software cannot use the weapons on those pylons. They added them just to add risk/make it challenging.

      • PeanutGallery

        I think you’ve got it reversed, as the original intent as described in the article was for all 4 planes to go in with external stores. They then changed this to make 2 planes “clean”. So in terms of LO/VLO challenge they actually made it less challenging by switching 2 planes to a “clean” config.

        • SpudmanWP

          Considering that Block 2B/3i cannot use any external stores… there would be no point to make that the “original” script.

          • Sons of Liberty

            This makes zero sends PE and doesn’t comply with the mission profile of flying in 3F configuration.

            In real world, the profile will,be the most likely configuration but this is testing and it begs the question of the pilots concern of being successful in 3F configuration. When the plane is easliy detected and doesnot have the turning and speed required to out turn and out run any missle threats.

            If we can’t properly test for all configurations and those who are flying it need to adjust because of that concern we have a weakness that we are not fully fleshing out to ensure we develop tactics for all potential scenarios.

            I would disagree with the Gen rosy picture of the younger crews approach. In some ways it points to a problem with them understanding you don’t always have the perfect in battle. These planes will be operating in an expeditionary environment and there are unknown and situations that they may not be able to avoid fighting in full 3F. Better to find out in training and develop the tactics needed than cover over it.

  • ArmChairGeneral

    Great story. All good news from here out folks


    Sol must be on suicide watch with all the good news coming out of the F-35 program.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      Him & Don-B have a pact…… apparently.

    • RedStatePatriot

      Don Bacon, is in an emergency meeting with his supervisors at the Internet Research Agency at this very moment.

      • WHOHE

        Yeah he’s been silent lately in the F-35 forums.

  • Mook

    I should have gone out to Ash Spring NV to see the jets slicing over the hills to invade the aggressor’s patch. Working up there as an investigator I saw many a wondrous sight that was not supposed to exist. F-16s and A-10s going up the valley at low level to sneak in to aggressor land.

  • Jacek Zemło

    Foursome, and “they killed the fighters, they killed the SAMs, they killed the target, they came home.”

    Wow! Looks like a nice pice of ad. Obviously, carrying all the ordnance internally?;-) There seems to be some gap between the real (and admirable) evolution of naval air warfare made by this aircraft and the exaggerations about what it is capable of doing. Guess they would be not so effective e.g. with multi-AAM-loaded IR-equipped enemy fighters coming en masse…

    • Spencer Whitson

      You do realize that the OLS-35 has a stated detection range of 27 nmi (50km) from the front on non-afterburning targets? The F-35 does have IR reducing measures, but let’s just say for a moment they only reduce its signature by 20%, as compared to conventional fighters. This means that you’d have to get to 21.6 nmi or so until you have the chance of seeing the thing on an OLS-35. I might be going out on a bit of a limb here when I say this, but that’s really not that great, especially when visual range in clear weather is generally considered to be 20 nmi, and based on a number of studies in civilian aviation, on a good day that’s often just about the range at which aircraft see each other.

      With the specifics out of the way, let’s stop to take a moment to realize that these opposing fighters would essentially be playing Marco Polo, completely unaware of where the F-35s are until they get very close, while at the same time the F-35 could likely see them for quite a while before they’re seen. Radar is a pretty big advantage. Further, even when set up entirely for a strike mission, a fourship of F-35s would still be carrying at minimum 8x AIM-120s. If you were the enemy fighters, you’d be flying blind at something which could kill quite a number of you. Never mind the fact that the F-35s could call for friends as well, and guide in their missiles for them. Personally, I wouldn’t be very happy as one of those pilots. The F-35s might kill a number of us, they might spot for more missiles which would then proceed to kill a number of us, or they might just decide that the engagement isn’t worth it and decide not to participate at all.

      Do you see how ridiculous that gets? Yes, using this tactic you might eventually take down several F-35s, but the amount of aircraft and pilots you would lose doing so would be far outweighing the benefit you get.

      • Ziv Bnd

        When I read your penultimate paragraph the F-15 2040C came to mind. Can you imagine your four F-35’s on a ground attack mission being able to call on a pair of F-15 2040C’s for support? The F-35 strike package gets surprised by a squadron of SU-35’s, the F-35’s use up their 8 AMRAAM’s and then call on the F-15’s to launch their 32 AMRAAMS as the F-35’s guide them to the SU-35’s.
        By the time the SU-35’s get close enough to get any kind of lock on an F-35 they would have to have survived 40 AMRAAM’s. I like those numbers. If the F-35’s can launch BVR. Which makes me wonder if the F-35/ALIS will have some more modern version of the camera the F-14 used to carry to allow long range identification of potential targets for the Phoenix.

        • Spencer Whitson

          You don’t even need it to be the 2040Cs, but rather just about any aircraft under the sun. In fact, I’d argue that one of the main advantages of the F-35 is targeting for other aircraft.

          As for something similar to the F-14’s TCS, I would point towards EOTS. Based on what videos have been released, as well as comparisons to similar targeting pods, it should have quite substantial range.

      • Andrew Sickafoose

        This isn’t really the situation anybody worries about, USAF has RedAir covered *without* JSF, it’s the F35’s attrition rate vs modern IADS.

        A SAM site *does not* equal advance Russian IADS.

        • Spencer Whitson

          Well, the person above me sure seemed to worry about it, so forgive me for addressing his fears.

          An IADS is a number of SAM sites, radars, ELINT, and fighters working together in concert. To be blunt, that’s exactly what the article is talking about. Do you think the USAF doesn’t try to create realistic training environments? That has been their number one goal for the past several decades.

          The F-35 should be able to handle an advanced IADS better than any other aircraft currently in service or production. The same reasons why the F-35 is so dangerous to other aircraft are the same reasons why it is not scared of an IADS. The stealth features drastically reduce the threat radius of all aspects of the IADS. When combined with such sensors as the AN/APG-81, EODAS/EOTS, and the AN/ASQ-239, the F-35 will see all components of the IADS before they see it. At that point one could decide whether to avoid the threats or take them out.

          • Andrew Sickafoose

            Lmao. Somebody has been huffing a lot of marketing material.

            You have no idea what the scenario was or the IADS parameters. For all we know it could be anything from Moscow to ODS.

          • Spencer Whitson

            You’ve got no arguments so you’re going to accuse me of being an idiot. Classic. That only undermines any points you might make, you realize? You’re going to have to try harder if you want to be taken seriously.

            And no, we don’t know what the IADS parameters were, but based on what we do know we can be fairly sure that it was indeed an IADS of some sort. However, you made the assumption that it was completely useless. Based on the knowledge that the US has been striving to make realistic training environments and DOES want to prepare their men and material for war as best they can, whose hypothesis do you support- the belief that the US is incompetent, or that it was a decently modeled IADS? Your choice.

  • CharleyA

    So in other works, fewer F-35s will be necessary in the future because the “armed scouts” take out the IADS and mark targets, the rest are non-stealthy bomb trucks. Makes perfect sense, particularly when the bomb trucks do not need to be F-35s. Win-win.

  • OG_Locc

    There are a handful of bloggers who are going to need to find a new profession if the F-35 keeps meeting more and more goals like this.

    • Ty Harris

      I have had my doubts about this aircraft. It seemed like it was trying to be all things to everybody from a design standpoint and was likely going to wind up being not so great at any one thing, but it seems like they have been overcoming a lot of problems lately and it’s capabilities are exceeding expectations. It’s a good thing to hear. Especially now that it pretty much HAS to work out. Too much has been invested in this, and the F35 is being counted on now to fulfill so many duties and to replace so many aging and obsolete aircraft going forward now that failure isn’t an option. It’s no raptor in a dogfight, but between it’s invisibility, it’s sensors, and the ability to share information it seems like it may well be able to get the job done. Nobody is ever going to get within dogfighting range before they are dead, dead, dead. Especially when they add a swarm of dedicated drones networked to the F35’s to share information and for standoff missile launching. In decades to come, the F35 may be more like an invisible airborne sensor nexus and command and control center for the drones. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the other side in a 4th generation aircraft- especially when they start to really crank these things out in serious numbers.

      • siempre44

        That’s the thing about the real world -especially war: Nothing “has to work out”. The F35 reminds of the japanese building the Yamato/Musashi class battleships. They were ‘too big to fail’ so they failed.

        • Ty Harris

          Our all volunteer force is derived from a democratic society that places a great deal of value on the lives of individual soldiers. We don’t have a million men to throw away as cannon fodder like the Chinese. We therefore rely on force multipliers like air supremacy, stealth, GPS, laser guided weaponry, drones, sensors, and stand off weaponry to fight from an advantageous position. The F35 when its fully deployed and functional is going to do everything the F16, F15,and F18 ever could do , and furthermore do it in an era of advanced missile and ground to air capability that is going to render those older planes obsolete. We will fight under air supremacy with the F35’s and that’s something we have to have. We will go where we want when we want and destroy air, sea, and ground targets before they ever even see it coming. And they enable the follow on waves of 4th gen aircraft to be viable too. And the F35s share sensor data so if one sees it they all see it. They can link with armed drones to either provide targeting to same or to provide standoff weapons based on targeting from the drones. Its an awesome system and we need it a helluva lot more than we neee more Abrams tanks.

          • siempre44

            The f35 was designed and conceived to be the low cost/high production partner to the high cost/air superiority F22. Then, mission creep and politics happened. The F35 took on a weird life where the F22 was cancelled after building fewer tha 200 planes and suddenly the F35 was redesigned and put forth as a stealthy air superiority craft instead of the F22 …and it will do close air support at low altitude in place of the A10…and it will do carrier air combat in place of the F/A18. No. This is not a superior weapon for the Marines. This is a flying camel that is now too expensive to fail and too expensive at 160 million dollars each to use. At its huge cost it will be built in small numbers and only deployed where it will not be in danger of being lost. Thus the comparison to the Musashi/Yamato .

  • RobM1981

    I surely hope that the plane is as good as the Marines are saying. Given the costs and teething pains, it would be nice to have a plane that actually delivers.

    We’ll see…

  • disqus_zommBwspv9

    Way to go Marines. rewriting the book shows imagination, thinking out side the box, etc.

  • Walter Adams

    It’s funny. It really is.
    With all the gab and blabber about what a fifth generation fighter is or isn’t, can or can’t do; nobody seemed to figure the fifth generation Pilot into their calculations.
    The new breed will wind up doing things with this new aircraft nobody dreamed of.
    The brass in WW2 ordered up a medium bomber in the B-25; the pilots and forward area crews filled its nose with .50 caliber guns and created a ferocious grand attack bomber, then they invented Skip bombing and went after Japanese ships.
    Give the man in the front line the gear and they will find things you didn’t know were in there.
    Or, as Patton said;
    “Tell a man WHAT to do, not HOW to do it, and let him surprise you with his ingenuity.”

  • xyz

    So what (hypothetically) happens when a 5th gen meets up with an adversarial 5th gen. Is it back to visual-site dog fighting with guns? How do you lock a missile onto a stealth aircraft? It seems to me this advantage only lasts another decade before other countries have their own stealth aircraft in place. Thoughts ?

    • Tom Billings

      Within 10 years? Lasers on F-35s. With off-bore sighting that is 360 degrees.

  • DB45

    This plane is needed. it will take a couple more years to really get it to work seamless. with that said, russia has very advanced missiles and if we take on russia or china this plane will get shot down. That does not mean we should not buy this plane! I think this plane equipped with the right platform on board could be used to take out systems like the one in Syria that the russian have set up. The down side of that is you need operating HZ to jam so the planes can do there job. we will still need jammers and good ones. that will be the future. I like cheap long range drones that are small. make them cost much less than the platform that might try to take it down. Imagine 100 drones that are using lasers to target and 1 ohio class submarine with 175 stealth cruise missile launching at all the targets at once. the first ones out would be jammers maybe 20 of them and then 100 more come in on there targets. Russia would be lucky to hit 15 of them. after that the jammers can fly back and hit those that were missed. that is where i am at.