As VMFA-211 ‘Wake Island Avengers’ mark the F-35B’s combat debut, it’s worth re-visiting our exclusive feature on the squadron that appeared in our January 2018 issue.
VMFA-211 is stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, in Arizona. The local authorities say this area enjoys the most hours of sunshine year round of any location on the planet. Despite the searing summer temperatures, it makes for a great flying location. Current plans call for four Lightning II squadrons to be fielded at Yuma. Alongside the ‘Avengers’ will be VMFA-122 ‘The Flying Leathernecks’, which will fly 16 F-35Bs, VMA-214 ‘Black Sheep’, which will swap its AV-8B Harrier IIs for 16 F-35Bs by mid-2023, and VMA-311 ‘Tomcats’ will exit the VSTOL (Vertical Short-Take-Off and Landing) business when it trades its Harriers for 10 F-35Cs, the big-deck carrier-optimized variant being developed primarily for the Navy. The Marines will purchase 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs on current plans.
The ‘Avengers’ are building to be a 16-aircraft squadron of F-35Bs. Commanding officer until early 2018, Lt Col Chad Vaughn says: ‘We transitioned on June 30, 2016, and pretty quickly thereafter in the September we were down at Tyndall AFB, Florida, for a Weapons System Evaluation Program [WSEP] where we shot two AIM-120s. Obviously they’d shot these in developmental and operational test before, but those were the first two AMRAAM [Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile] shots from an operational F-35B. After WSEP we were back here at Yuma for a while and focusing on the basics of employing the aircraft before we again headed out in November in support of DT-III on the USS America (LHA 6). We initially sent two jets out to aid the developmental and operational testing that was going on, but sent a further five aircraft out shortly thereafter and carrier qualified (CQ’d] seven of our pilots. We had a combined total of 12 F-35Bs out on the carrier and it afforded a huge amount of experience for the whole team.’
A joint approach
‘In July we participated in ‘Red Flag 17-3’ alongside 58th Fighter Squadron F-35As from Eglin,’ says Vaughn. He adds that this exercise underscored a core tenet of the Lightning II project. ‘As we are all flying the same basic aircraft in all three services, we pushed right from the very beginning of this program to have a common tactics manual — and this exercise was really a validation of that. If we’re integrated with air force F-35As for example, they know what we’re doing and we know what they’re doing. That’s because we’re all baselined on the same tactical execution. There are some things that are unique to the way the Marine Corps or the Navy does things and some mission sets that are unique to the air force — and we’ll do those a little bit differently in certain areas — but for the vast majority of things we’re going to operate the same way.’ He adds that this kind of joint approach requires minimal briefing and is ‘very standardized’. It’s the same premise that has helped to leverage joint testing across the three services and with international partners.
Early criticism of the operational capabilities of the Lightning II are being addressed through software modifications. The general word at F-35 squadrons is that things have come a long way over the past five years. ‘A big part of that journey was us learning how to get the most from the Block 2B and 3i software,’ says Lt Col Vaughn. ‘A lot is talked about the F-35’s warfighting capabilities. Sure, we still have bugs to work out, but we’ve made huge strides to understand this airplane a lot more. The bottom line is we can deploy right now and if we had to go to combat tomorrow we’d be very lethal.’
‘I’ve been very fortunate to fly a number of different aircraft,’ Vaughn continues. ‘I was an F/A-18 pilot, I flew the Super Hornet as an instructor at TOP GUN, I also flew the F-16 up at Fallon. The capabilities of the F-35 right now are built around the most lethal combination of sensors in the world — even with the current software — it’s only going to get better. Right now we have a mix of 2B and 3i jets here and we really turned a corner when we truly got to grips with the capabilities and understood the limitations of the aircraft, while growing as a community and assuming our own identity. We have to embrace what we learned in our old communities, but taking on our own F-35 status has been really important.’
It’s interesting to contrast the Marine Corps F-35 community and approach with that of the USAF F-22 Raptor. The Raptor introduction to service was pretty much a 180-degree opposite of the F-35 when it came to initial employment. The Raptor, for example, had a relatively full operating envelope from an early stage, but its mission systems were immature. It drove F-22 squadrons with a keen focus on all aspects of the air-to-air regime — as you’d expect for the F-22 — but also with granular knowledge of the close-in fight. The F-35, conversely, has been handcuffed by g-limitations, which are only now beginning to open up.
Lt Col Vaughn calls basic fighter maneuvers (BFM) ‘a stepping stone to everything we do’ in the air-to-air role. ‘The Raptors flew a lot of 1-v-1 early on, whereas with the F-35 our envelope and operating limits were constrained, but we had far more mature missions systems. You’ve got to be able to fight in close if you can’t take care of the problem at long range. With the forthcoming Block 3F software the envelope starts opening up, so we will be able to do more BFM and we are starting to learn a lot more about that as we speak.’ Vaughn expects to start pumping Block 3F into his jets in the mid-2018 timeframe after it gets the thumbs-up from the operational testers. Although, he says it won’t change the overall ethos of the mission. ‘We won’t emphasize the close-in dogfight as much [as maybe the F-22s] because of our wider range of missions sets, but that said, so much can be learned from flying BFM.’
Close air support
The mission that is so often discussed in relation to USMC tactical aviation is close air support (CAS). Much has been said of the fact that it’s about the mindset and training, and that the platform is largely irrelevant. However, if that platform can’t permit a versatile approach to the mission, it does rather limit the art of what’s possible. ‘As Marines, CAS has a special place in our hearts,’ explains Vaughn. ‘CAS is about effects on targets. You either do or don’t meet the intent of the ground commander — that’s who you’re working for. As long as you can put a weapon where he or she needs it to be, then you’re successful in CAS.’
‘The F-35’s stealth is awesome, but it’s just a tool in our toolbox. The airplane’s center of gravity is its sensors — they are what make this aircraft so different. The combination of the sensors and a tremendous weapons-carrying potential once we start adding external pylons with 3F will be awesome.’
As well as an expanded flight envelope, the advent of Block 3F will ultimately see the F-35s starting to carry external pylons and stores. This will likely include fairly regular carriage of AIM-9X Sidewinder missile acquisition rounds on the outer stations — necessary for pilots to train with for close quarter engagements. Lt Col Vaughn says: ‘We like to do block training, for example we’re coming out of an air-to-surface block right now. It helps operations with the flying schedule. So when we’ve got a block of CAS, for example, we may hang some pylons on if we’re trying to haul a lot of ordnance.’
‘Once we kick down the door and don’t need the stealth anymore let’s load it up, haul iron, put the cannon on — we’re absolutely going to get down low and use it. We’re going to employ the F-35 the same way we do our Hornets and Harriers. However, those missions where we’re rooting around under the clouds looking for a target, we now have some pretty spectacular capabilities to stay above the weather and see though it — so there are some things that we’ve not had in the past that we can now use.’
Going to sea
In late October , VMFA-211 participated in Exercise ‘Dawn Blitz’, embarking aboard the USS Essex (LHD 2) as part of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB). The squadron had already embarked on the Essex in August to assist in the re-certification of the ship’s flight deck with new upgrades to accommodate the F-35. ‘That was our first night CQ in the squadron — in fact it was really the first night CQ evolution in the fleet,’ explains Vaughn. ‘Our night work around the boat is all unaided right now because of the limitations of the night vision camera in the helmet — we’ve still got some way to go with that. For me it’s similar to flying a Hornet onto a big deck carrier, that’s all unaided and you only use the night vision goggles when you’re up and away from the ship.’
When it comes to the actual flying around the boat, the F-35B is still some way off realizing the fully automated landing characteristics that are planned. The Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS) will ultimately enable the ship and the aircraft to talk to one another and guide the aircraft to carriers and amphibious assault ships in all weather conditions and in surface conditions to sea state five using an encrypted, jam-proof datalink. The system should enable the F-35B to auto-land on the amphibious assault ship, although that ambition is still some way off. Eventually the aircraft will do a completely automated landing. The jet will ultimately communicate via JPALS with the ship to get speed and set a GPS offset to the location it needs to hover abeam the landing spot.
For now, Fleet pilots are manually flying the aircraft but they can still plug the ship’s speed into the autopilot. Lt Col Vaughn says: ‘About a mile behind the ship you’re set up in Mode 4 (STOVL mode) and starting to decelerate. The LSO [Landing Signals Officer] lets you know the ship’s speed, so you can program that into the autopilot and the jet will auto-decelerate. You rarely nail it and start your ‘decel’ at exactly the right time, so you have to make some small adjustments. Ultimately, you’re looking to pull up to a hover abeam the port side of the ship in daylight. At night you’re going to fly down the center ‘tramline’ of the deck and creep up over Spot Seven, which is where we generally land.’
‘The autopilot in STOVL is truly amazing — it’s very steady — there’s a lot of science going on behind you. We hold the aircraft above the spot, make a few positional corrections, then push the stick forwards and hit a button, which captures you’re optimum rate of descent and you’re just making small line up corrections all the way down.’
Vaughn says that despite currently flying around the ship without night vision aids, pilots sometimes call upon the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System (DAS). Pilots can bring this all-round external view of the jet into their visor, or up on the large area cockpit display. ‘I love flying with the DAS when I’m up and away from the ship, but it can be a bit of a distraction when I’m landing if it’s in the helmet, but I love it on the screen.’
Stealthy and healthy
Being out on deck, deployed for long periods, not to mention slapping external pylons on and performing maintenance — all clearly takes its toll on the stealthy external surfaces of the F-35. Damaging the skin is a huge concern, especially as the USMC aspires to maintain 100 per cent low observable (LO) integrity for its entire F-35 fleet. All the squadron’s aircraft are ‘go to war’ assets — there’s no difference between the way the training squadrons operate and they way the front line operates. The USMC attitude is: if you’re paying for a stealthy aeroplane, you might as well keep it stealthy.
Vaughn says that LO maintenance isn’t as much of a headache as some expected, and attributes much of this to the internal maintenance teams within each squadron. ‘It’s about having a Fifth-Generation way of thinking and approaching this,’ he explains. ‘The way our maintenance publications are written is that the job isn’t complete — the airplane is not fixed — until the LO is restored on it. That’s been learned from prior stealthy platforms where maybe the LO wasn’t always maintained and it was deferred. Certain F-35 panels do have deferrals on them which means we can wait a certain number of days before the LO is fully restored. Some have a five-day deferral. It means we might finish the bulk of the job on a Monday, which gives us a few days to fly the jet ‘green’ as we call it, then we’ll have a crew come in on Friday or Saturday to fix the LO so it can cure over the weekend, so by Monday it’s fully ready to go.’
VMFA-211 F-35Bs made their combat debut on September 27 as the ‘Avengers’ struck targets in Afghanistan under Operation ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’. Footage showed the aircraft being loaded with GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions and carrying their externally-mounted General Dynamics GAU-22 25mm gun pod. The aircraft fuel-stopped in Kandahar before returning to the USS Essex.
‘The opportunity for us to be the first Navy, Marine Corps team to employ the F-35B in support of maneuver forces on the ground demonstrates one aspect of the capabilities this platform brings to the region, our allies, and our partners,’ said Col Chandler Nelms, 13th MEU commander.