In an effort to minimize the alarming gap in its fixed-wing marine aviation capability, the U.S. Marine Corps is joining the U.S. Navy in buying 80 F-35C – the carrier-based conventional takeoff and landing variant of the joint strike fighter (JSF). Until the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) F-35B variant is ready, the corps will deploy its fighters from U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.
Under a joint agreement signed yesterday by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos, both signed a memorandum of agreement today on the purchase of F/A-18E/F and F-35B/C fighter jets they say will improve air capabilities for both services. “The continued development of F-35B remains the centerpiece of the Corps’s tactical fixed wing modernization program” an official statement the Marine Corps maintained.
Under the agreement, the two services will maintain the planned acquisition of 680 F-35s but change the proportion between the carrier based and STOVL variants. Under the new plan the Navy will buy 260 of the F-35C carrier variant, with the Marine Corps adding additional 80, along with 340 F-35Bs STOVL versions. Reduction of 80 ‘B’ aircraft is expected to further increase the unit cost of the STOVL version, already blamed to be the most complex, expensive and troubled part of the JSF program.
Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Gen. Amos said that flying Marine Corps F-35s off large-deck aircraft carriers was something the Corps was hoping for years. The acquisition of the F-35C will bring this dream to reality. Once the new fighters are operational, the Corps will assign five of its air squadrons to flying the F-35Cs in the Navy’s carrier air wing. The F-35Bs will be assigned to ‘L-class’ amphibious support ships. “Our priority is to do testing of the F-35Cs on the carrier,” he said. “We will learn a lot about the F-35Bs on the L ships” to determine if the STOVLs may be used on carriers. The U.S. Navy operates 11 aircraft carriers and 11 large-deck amphibious landing ships that could support the F-35B.
“These quantities match the fiscal 2012 budget request” Said Thomas E. Laux, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for air programs. The agreement reflects the “enduring partnership” of Navy and Marine Corps aviation, Laux said. Training for the aircraft will be “completely integrated,” and there will be only one pipeline, he said.
The new plan relieves some of the pressure from the JSF program as it realigns the development of the troubled ‘B’ model. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced in January that he was placing the F-35B on the equivalent of two year probation due to testing problems with the STOVL aircraft. “It’s my hope we can get off probation well before two years.” said Gen. Amos. He said by this spring, a set of metrics will be available, defining a threshold for getting the airplane off probation and getting it back into the regular mode of production,” the Marine Commandant added.