A Marine Corps fighter squadron has deployed for Japan equipped with the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, marking the first overseas stationing of the aircraft since the service declared it fit for combat last year.
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, an F-35B squadron with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, on Jan. 9 deployed from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., and headed for Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, the first location to receive the jets outside the continental United States.
The 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing became the first operational F-35 squadron when the service declared initial operational capability (IOC) in July 2015 following a five-day operational readiness inspection (ORI). The squadron previously flew F/A-18 Hornets but was redesignated an F-35 unit in November 2012. Since IOC, the squadron has continued to fly sorties and employ ordnance as part of their normal training cycle.
The Marine Corps F-35B short-takeoff, vertical landing (STOVL) variant is designed to replace the F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier jump jet and the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft.
In December 2015, VMFA-121 employed its F-35Bs in support of Exercise Steel Knight, a combined-arms live-fire exercise which integrates capabilities of air and ground combat elements to complete a wide range of military operations in an austere environment to prepare the 1st Marine Division for deployment as the ground combat element of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). The F-35B preformed exceedingly well during the exercise, according to the Marine Corps.
In October 2016, a contingent of Marine Corps F-35B's, pilots and maintainers participated in Developmental Test III and Lightning Carrier proof of concept demonstrations aboard the USS America amphibious assault ship (LHA-6).
That final test period ensured the plane could operate in the most extreme at-sea conditions, with a range of weapons loadouts and with the newest software variant. Data collected during those tests laid the groundwork for developing the concepts of operations for F-35B deployments aboard Navy amphibious carriers, the first two of which will take place in 2018.
“The transition of VMFA-121 from MCAS Yuma to MCAS Iwakuni marks a significant milestone in the F-35B program as the Marine Corps continues to lead the way in the advancement of stealth fighter attack aircraft,” a Marine Corps spokesperson said.