Why the Navy will deactivate an F-35 Squadron next year

By: Mark D. Faram 

The Navy will deactivate the Grim Reapers of Strike Fighter Squadron 101, consolidating all Joint Strike Fighter operations and training at California’s Naval Air Station Lemoore, officials confirmed on Friday.

The squadron has been based at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. It was reactivated in 2012 as the Navy’s initial F-35C fleet replacement squadron. At the time, the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Joint Strike Fighter replacement squadrons were located there as well.

The move of the Grim Reapers’ 15 aircraft is slated to be effective on July 1, according to OPNAV notice 5400.

“The Navy is moving forward with the deactivation of VFA-101 at Eglin AFB next year, and the re-alignment of F-35C assets into Strike Fighter Squadrons to support VX-9 Detachment Edwards AFB, Air Warfare Development Command (NAWDC) at NAS Fallon and maintain Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) production at VFA-125, while transitioning Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet squadrons to the F-35C Lightning II,” wrote Lt. Travis Callaghan, a Naval Air Forces spokesman, in an email to Navy Times.

The shift to California should see the Grim Reapers’ 29 officers and 239 enlisted personnel replace their patches with those of the “Rough Raiders” of Strike Fighter Squadron 125, Lemoore’s F-35C replacement squadron.

“This will co-locate the fleet replenishment squadron production of pilots directly into the operational squadrons scheduled for transition to F-35C,” according to a note in the directive ordering the move.

The extra aircraft, pilots and maintainers at Lemoore are expected to help the Pentagon meet its testing and evaluation requirements for the the Navy’s first operational fleet F-35C squadron, VFA-147,

That major milestone for the Navy’s JSF program is still slated to happen in 2019. The maiden overseas deployment of VFA-147 is anticipated in 2021 while embarked on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.

Deactivating VFA-101 wasn’t the Navy’s original plan.

Officials wanted to move the squadron to Lemoore in early 2017. Then the Navy decided to keep VFA-101 at Eglin and stood up a second training squadron, VFA-125, at Lemoore.

At the time, officials told Navy Times there was “no plan in the foreseeable future for VFA-101 to be stood down” because “the requirement is for two FRS while we are transitioning squadrons.”

The Grim Reapers could be resurrected if the Navy chooses to have an F-35 replacement squadron on both coasts. The OPNAV note requires the Navy to “maintain VFA 101 squadron lineage (name, UIC, insignia, call sign, etc.) for future reactivation.”

But bringing the Grim Reapers back to life likely won’t happen for at least a decade. That’s because the Navy has yet to start the process of naming a home base for its East Coast F-35Cs. It requires extensive environmental impact studies before senior leaders make the final decision on where the squadrons will go. And that, Navy officials say, isn’t expected to start until the mid-2020′s at the earliest.

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