Patrick Durrant | Avalon
This morning at the Avalon Airshow US Marine Corps (USMC) Deputy Commandant for Aviation, Lieutenant General Jon "Dog" Davis discussed USMC aviation in the Pacific, notably the standing up of F-35 squadrons; he also provided an update on the Marines' experiences with the joint strike fighter to date.
The Marines are operating two initial operating capable squadrons, VMFA 121 and VMFA 211 at Iwakuni in Japan; they also have a training squadron VMF AT501, which also includes RAF and RN pilots who will also be operating the F-35B.
There are ten aircraft currently stationed in Japan with a further six to follow in July/August, making up the normal squadron complement.
LTGEN Davis said the aircraft had been put through their paces on USS America and had integrated well with other USMC aircraft operating on the carrier such as AH-1Zs and V-22s. They had been tested in heavy sea conditions and in strike operations.
“What I can tell you is we've got a real winner on our hands,” LTGEN Davis said.
According to the General, USMC F-35Bs had flown 25,000 of the total 75,000 hours flown thus far by all F-35 variants.
LTGEN Davis, who had been an instructor and also commander of the USMC air weapons school, said he had not seen anything like what the pilots were doing with this airplane in his 37 years as a Marine pilot.
He compared the fighter to a quarterback: “it sees everything, it's very bright, it controls the play”. But whereas in traditional mission scenarios there were aircraft performing different roles (he used the analogy of linebackers, running backs, receivers), the F-35 more closely represented a soccer player: “every single player in that match is empowered to score, it's very agile and can put iself in a position to score so it's a very dynamic fight.”
At the annual Exercise Red Flag recently, in which elements of the RAAF participated, the USAF had reported kill ratios of at least 15:1 with the F-35A according to the General.
“In our own analysis we're seeing a consistent ratio more like 24:0 – we're not losing aircraft at all in our scenarios, and we set the conditions for other legacy fighters to be successful where we can.”
The USMC will be equipped with 16 and four squadrons of the B and C variants respectively. LTGEN Davis said he expected to see the same maturation occurring with the F-35 as happened with the F/A-18, three squadrons of which have been earmarked for imminent replacement by the F-35B.
“The F/A-18 we saw in the eighties and nineties was vastly different to the one we're seeing now and I see no reason why it will be any different with the F-35,” he said.
The USMC was also using the F-35 as a "bomb-truck" and the General said they were able to carry 3000 lbs more ordnance than the F/A-18 by mounting weapons on external pylons. He acknowledged this degraded the stealth characteristics of the aircraft but put it down to the Marine philosophy of battle, that is, “Once we've beaten down the defences of a target, we put the pylons on the airplane, we load it up with ordnance and then we go do what we do as Marines.”
LTGEN Davis remarked on how younger USMC pilots were often outperforming their older more experienced legacy platform colleagues on the F-35; they tended to pick up on the skills the fifth generation fighter demanded more quickly than their squadron mates.
“I've got student pilots in our training squadron with fifty or sixty hours on the F-35B performing like a three year weapons school graduate,” he said. “The confidence they have in the aeroplane is unprecedented.”
“We found that out with the V-22s (USMC Osprey tiltrotor). You put the new technology in the hands that haven't brought in baggage from the F/A-18 Hornet or the AV-8 Harrier, and they will then take that aircraft to the next level.”
The Marines had also championed 'hot-reload-refuel' on the F-35s. From experience gained in Afghanistan on the Corps' AV-8 Harriers, they were now performing the same function on F-35B, which gave the platform “tremendous operational reach”.
They were also using the F-35Bs in close concert with the USMC's attack helicopters.