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.