F-35 jump jet gears up for crucial at-sea tests

By Lance M. Bacon, Staff writer

The blue-green team is gearing up for operational tests that could build momentum for the embattled F-35B Lightning II — or add more fuel to the fire of outspoken critics.

The first shipboard operational test period for the Marine Corps’ short take off and vertical landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter is scheduled to take place May 18-30 aboard the amphibious assault ship Wasp. Six of the jets will participate, four out of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, and two from MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina.

Evaluators will assess the stealth jet’s integration and operation within the full spectrum of flight and maintenance operations, as well as supply chain support while embarked at sea, said Maj. Paul Greenberg, Marine Corps spokesman. Lessons learned will “lay the groundwork” for future deployments, he said. The aims of the at-sea tests include:

  • Assess day and night take-offs and landings, weapons loads, and extended range operations.
  • Assess aircraft-to-ship network communications.
  • Evaluate the landing signal officer’s launch and recovery software.
  • Test the crew’s ability to conduct scheduled and unscheduled maintenance.
  • Determine the suitability of maintenance support equipment for shipboard operations.
  • Assess the logistics footprint of a deployed, six-plane F-35B detachment.

The F-35B remains the centerpiece of Marine fixed-wing modernization because “it supports our doctrinal form of maneuver warfare and our operational need for close air support in austere conditions and locations potentially inaccessible for traditional fighters,” Greenberg told Navy Times on March 17.”The Lightning II will provide effective close-air support to our Marines and sailors when they need it the most.”

Twenty-one alterations were required to equip the Wasp for regular operation of the F-35B aircraft, according to Matt Leonard, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command. Each alteration will be made on all L-class ships during planned availabilities and in line on newly constructed ships in advance of the F-35B’s arrival.

Among the biggest challenges has been the downward force and heat of the F-35B’s engines as it lands, which has burned the nonskid deck. A new highly tolerant, temperature resistant thermal spray coating was applied and has been successfully evaluated aboard Wasp during F-35B, V-22, AV-8B and other helicopter flight operations, Leonard said.

The Wasp also underwent seven “cornerstone” alterations that provide necessary electrical servicing upgrades, expand weapons handling and storage, provide for the F-35B Autonomic Logistics Information System, secure access facilities, and relocate the flight deck tramline for flight safety.

The Wasp is the test ship for the F-35B and has not made a major deployment in over a decade.

While the Air Force’s decision to replace the venerable A-10 with its F-35A variant has nabbed headlines, some analysts and lawmakers remain critical of the Corps’ next-generation jump jet for three reasons. It has the shortest range and smallest payload of any F-35, its capabilities are reduced and it’s the most expensive. An Air Force F-35A airframe and engine runs $77.7 million, as compared to $105.5 million for the F-35B, and $89.7 million for the F-35C, according to an April 2014 Congressional Research Service report. The Marine Corps also plans to buy the carrier-based F-35C.

Supporters point out that few (if any) potential adversaries can beat the fifth-generation fighter, and this design amounts to a leap ahead for reconnaissance, electronic warfare and close-air support missions

“This actually doesn’t just replace the F/A-18, the AV-8 or the EA-6. It’s a fundamentally different capability,” Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said in March 10 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It’s a transformational capability. It’ll do everything that those three aircraft will do, but also, in terms of the information environment, it’ll do a significant amount more for the Marine air-ground task force.”

Initial operating capability for the F-35B is scheduled for July.

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