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First Marine Corps F-35B Squadron Leaves for Japan

USS AMERICA, At Sea - An F-35B Lightning II aircraft completes Envelope Expansion Testing during a Short Take-off Vertical Landing aboard USS America, Oct. 30, 2016. US Marine Corps Photo

USS AMERICA, At Sea – An F-35B Lightning II aircraft completes Envelope Expansion Testing during a Short Take-off Vertical Landing aboard USS America, Oct. 30, 2016. US Marine Corps Photo

This post has been updated with an additional comment from VMFA-121’s operation officer.

Ten of the Marine Corps’ newest fighter jets took off from the runway at Yuma Marine Corps Air Station, Ariz., on Monday and began the long trans-Pacific flight to their squadron’s new home in Japan, service officials announced today.

The single-seat F-35B Lighting IIJoint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 are relocating to Iwakuni MCAS, bringing the high-tech, multi-mission capabilities of the controversial Joint Strike Fighter jet to the western Pacific region. Marine Corps officials had announced last year the decision to move the F-35B squadron from the West Coast-based 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing to the Japan-based 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.

“The unique combination of stealth, cutting-edge radar and sensor technology and electronic warfare systems bring all of the access and lethality capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter, a modern bomber and an adverse-weather, all-threat environment air support platform,” 3rd MAW said in a statement. The F-35B variant is designed for short vertical take-offs and landings, like the aging AV-8B Harrier jump jet it will replace. The jet “is a game-changing aircraft,” former 3rd MAW commander, Maj. Gen. Mike Rocco, told a San Diego military advisory group last May.

“The aircraft will arrive at Iwakuni in segments over the next couple days,” said Capt. Kurt Stahl, a 3rd MAW spokesman at Miramar MCAS in San Diego, told USNI News. The relocation of the squadron, which can number about 300 personnel, is a permanent change-of-station (PCS) move for the Marines, sailors and their families.

“It’s the first time that any fifth generation fighter unit has moved and been permanently based overseas, specifically in Japan,” Maj. Michael J. O’Brien, VMFA-121’s operations officer, said in a statement. “As Marines, we’re all about being forward based and having a forward presence and there’s really nothing better than being out there on the leading edges in Asia, in Japan, with our allies.”

The “Green Knights” squadron is expected to receive six additional jets by summer and is slated to train and do a WestPac deployment with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit with the Japan-based amphibious ready group later this year, officials said. That ARG will be led by amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD-1), which will shift its homeport from Norfolk, Va., to Sasebo, Japan, later this year, as USS Bonhomme Richard leaves Japan for its previous homeport of San Diego.

Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, told USNI News last month that “we intend to fully incorporate the F-35 into the [U.S. Pacific Command] area of operations.”

Marines with the squadron will join in regional joint exercises this year throughout PACOM, including the biennial exercise Northern Edge in Alaska, as it prepares for predeployment training with the 31st MEU and ARG, Bailey said Dec. 22. “So I call it a crawl, walk, run; we have to get out there and start learning some lessons, which we will…. So they’ll get out on ground and just start doing what I call familiarization, and then they’ll learn some lessons from that,” he said.

Japan is among a handful of nations interested in buying the conventional F-35 for its defense force.

The F-35B is replacing the Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornet, EA-6B Prowler and AV-8B Harrier jets, all aircraft that have deployed globally and operated in the western Pacific.

In 2012, VMFA-121, an F/A-18 Hornet squadron, was the first unit to be redesignated as an operational JSF squadron. In December 2015, it participated in the 1st Marine Division’s annual Marine air-ground task force exercise Steel Knight in southern California. In October, the squadron’s jets went to sea aboard the amphibious assault ship America (LHA-6) for a round of developmental tests and a proof of concept demonstration to see how the aircraft would operate at sea. Additional testing will continue into the deployment.

The Corps’ second F-35B squadron, the “Avengers” of VMFA-211, was a Harrier squadron until its redesignation last year.

  • Michael D. Woods

    Forgive me, but isn’t 211 not “Avengers” but “Wake Island Avengers”? Maybe they’ll go through Wake on their way to Japan. Also, as a retired Marine tanker pilot, I’ll try to find out more about how the transpac is planned. We once got trapped on Wake for two weeks because Air Force tanking abandoned us after an A-6 had maintenance delays. The bar was out of whisky in four days!

    • RDF

      A6 guys are all weather, especially in the club.

    • muzzleloader

      I am curious about the transit route also, Wether they take the southern Hawaii/Guam/Japan route or Whidby Island/Elmendorf. Either way, it has been a long time since Marine Corps aviators have flown single engine aircraft on a transpac.

  • Dan Tootle

    Nice combination of new aviation capability headed to Japan. The F-35B Lightning II, E-2D Super Hawkeye, and USS America LHA-6. Let’s see how well 7th Fleet puts this to good work.

    • Marjus Plaku

      Cannot be stressed enough how big this is. Even without a carrier presence at times China cannot feel too easy about sending its ships past the first island chain and into the open Pacific to be slaughtered by advanced all seeing all striking US forces.

  • muzzleloader

    The F-35 is going to replace the EA-6B? How is that going to work?

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      There are only a couple dozen Prowlers left.
      They have been almost entirely replaced by Growlers.

      The Lightning will be a pretty good surveillance platform with an ok electronic warfare capability.
      So, will do a job from the LHDs or where a super-carrier is not available.

      Its not really a replacement though…. the Prowler is just being retired & replaced already.

  • me109g4

    Lets see how many of these suffer Maintenance casualties along the way,,

    • Gen. Buck Turgidson

      Like the super destroyer in the canal?

      • Secundius

        The US Navy and USMC are Experimenting with 3D Parts Replication, with the Air Force and Army to Soon to Follow. If they Haven’t Already Started…

  • Michael D. Woods

    As a long-retired naval aviator and Marine, I’d like to try flying all the airplanes, but based on what I’ve read we’re on the right track.

  • Gen. Buck Turgidson

    70 % of the corps F18s still down for maint problems?