F-35B Makes First Ship, MEU Deployment
EAST CHINA SEA — A detachment of F-35B Lightning IIs with Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) arrived aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp March 5, marking the first time the aircraft has deployed aboard a U.S. Navy ship and with a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in the Indo-Pacific, the Amphibious Force, U.S. Seventh Fleet, said in a release.
The F-35B, assigned under the Okinawa, Japan-based 31st MEU, will provide a robust set of sea-based capabilities that will enhance Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary operations. The aircraft is equally capable of conducting precision strikes inland, supporting Marines inserted ashore or providing air defense for the Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG).
“Pairing F-35B Lightning IIs with the Wasp represents one of the most significant leaps in warfighting capability for the Navy-Marine Corps team in our lifetime,” said Rear Adm. Brad Cooper, commander, ESG 7. “This fifth-generation stealth jet is extremely versatile and will greatly enhance and expand our operational capabilities.”
VMFA-121 pilots are scheduled to conduct a series of qualification flights on Wasp over a multi-day period. Following qualifications, the F-35Bs and 2,300 Marines that make up the 31st MEU will deploy aboard ships of the Wasp ESG for follow-on operations in the Indo-Pacific region as part of a routine patrol to strengthen regional alliances, provide rapid-response capability, and advance the Up-Gunned ESG concept.
The Up-Gunned ESG is a U.S. Pacific-fleet initiated concept that aims to provide lethality and survivability to a traditional three-ship amphibious ready group by integrating multimission surface combatants and F-35B into amphibious operations. By adding these enabling capabilities, the amphibious force can more effectively defend against adversarial threats in the undersea, surface, and air domains, as well provide offensive firepower to strike from the sea.
The 31st MEU is the only forward-deployed MEU in the region. The F-35B serves as one airframe within a multitude of air capabilities of the MEU’s Air Combat Element. Air, ground and logistics forces make up the MEU’s Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), a composite of capabilities that allow the MEU, in partnership with Navy amphibious ships, to conduct a wide-range of missions from crisis response to disaster relief.
“This is a historic deployment,” said Col. Tye R. Wallace, 31st MEU commanding officer. “The F-35B is the most capable aircraft ever to support a Marine rifleman on the ground. It brings a range of new capabilities to the MEU that make us a more lethal and effective Marine Air-Ground Task Force.”
The guided-missile destroyers USS Dewey, with embarked Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35 “Magicians,” and USS Sterett, with embarked Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 49 “Scorpions,” are scheduled to support a range of operations and training with the Wasp ESG for varying stretches during the patrol.
The arrival of the F-35B culminates testing and shipboard structural modifications on Wasp that began in 2013. Wasp completed an overhaul in 2017 and subsequently departed Norfolk, Virginia, to forward deploy to Sasebo, Japan, as part of a Department of Defense effort to place the most advanced capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.
“Deployment of the versatile F-35B enhances the full range of Expeditionary Strike Group capabilities with one of the world’s most technologically-advanced air warfare platforms,” said Capt. Colby Howard, Wasp commanding officer. “With the specific upgrades Wasp has received, the Navy-Marine Corps team in the Pacific is better positioned than ever before to support our commitment to the security of Japan and the Region.”
The Wasp ESG is on a routine patrol in the Indo-Pacific, providing U.S. Seventh Fleet a rapid-response capability in the event of a contingency and working with partners and allies to increase combined capacity for regional security.