By Carlo Munoz

The Marine Corps plan to buy a number of Navy variants of the Joint Strike Fighter was not driven by the service’s continuing difficulty to field its own vertical-lift version of the advanced fighter, according to service officials.

Under a new Navy-Marine Corps agreement signed yesterday, the Marines will buy 80 F-35C fighters–or five fighter squadrons worth–and integrate those aircraft into the Navy’s air carrier wing rotation beginning in 2016. The 80 Marine Corps-owned C variants are part of the services’ plan to buy 340 of those carrier versions, of which 240 will be procured by the Navy, Thomas Laux, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for Air Programs, said during a briefing yesterday at the Pentagon.

The F-35C plan was part of an interservice memorandum of understanding (MoU) on tactical aviation integration signed by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus yesterday.

Before the MoU, discussions among Navy leaders over plans to increase the number of F-35Cs flown by the Marine Corps began earlier this year.

The first of the five anticipated F-35C Marine squadrons will be on deck by December 2016, with the last squadron coming on station by July 2019, according to the agreement.

The additional C model buys by the Marine Corps will not affect the Navy’s overall plans to procure a total of 640 Joint Strike Fighters, 340 carrier versions and 340 vertical takeoff versions, Laux said. Those numbers reflect those submitted by the sea service as part of their defense spending request for fiscal year 2012, he added.

However, Laux and others were adamant that the decision to increase the number of F-35Cs in the Marine Corps was not tied to the services’ difficulties in fielding the vertical-lift version of the JSF, noting the agreement was “demonstration of commitment” by the services to both fighter variants.

“Those decisions really had no impact on the rationale for buying the [F-35]Cs,” Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant deputy commandant for Marine Corps aviation, said at the same briefing. The decision, he added, was driven by the need to “optimize the capability of the platform” and not to act as a hedge or bridge to the B version of the fighter once those planes pass testing and development.

“The Marines will always be tied” to the F-35B, Rear Adm. David Philman, director of warfare integration, said at the same briefing.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates suspended the F-35B, built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT] and designed to replace the AV-8B Harrier, in January. The move, which put the program in a two-year probationary period, was necessary to allow program officials time to get the program “back on track,” Gates said at the time.

Since then, Thomas said test variants of the aircraft were performing well, and that Amos was working with JSF Program Executive Officer Vice Adm. Dave Venlet to develop a series of metrics that the program will have to hit to come off of that two-year probation.

Reiterating that point, Laux argued the decision to increase F-35C buys was “a demonstration of the commitment” the Navy and Marines Corps have for both variants of the fighter, and the plan would serve to “fulfill the needs of both services” in the area of aviation integration.

To that end, Laux said that Navy acquisition officials did not consult or receive feedback from program officials from Lockheed Martin on the decision to plus up the number of C-model JSFs the Marine Corps were buying, since the overall procurement numbers were unaffected.

However, Laux did note the plan would generate cost savings, in terms of procurement, for the Marines Corps since the up-front costs for the more mature B variant would be less compared to the C model. But he did add those front end savings would “not be significant” over the long run, since operations, maintenance and overall life-cycle costs would be similar between the B and the C versions of the plane.

While the Navy and Marine Corps are moving ahead with plans to deploy the C-class fighter on Navy carriers, service officials are also continuing to evaluate stationing B versions on those ships, according to Laux.

“In the medium-term, the priority is to do the testing and integration of the F-35C on the carriers, and we are also going to learn a lot as we integrate the F-35B aboard” the service’s amphibious ships, Laux said. “The information that is derived from those two test events will be used to put together a plan in response to a potential requirement to put a [F-35]B on an aircraft carrier.”

When asked if the Marine Corps would consider drawing down the number of F-35Cs on board Navy carriers, if the decision was made to field B versions of the fighter on those boats, Thomas said any attempt to predict what impact F-35Bs would have on the MoU would be “premature to determine.”

The MoU, he added, sets in stone the future force deployments for Navy and Marine Corps aviation “for years ahead and forecasts it pretty well five, 10 years down the road.” The agreement signed yesterday is the follow-on to the initial agreement on TACAIR integration that service officials inked in 2002.