WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps' top aviator is hungry for more F-35Bs, telling reporters on Wednesday that he would like to see the service's buy rate increase to 37 jets per year.
That would almost double the planned rate of F-35B procurement over the next few years, which is projected to sit at 20 aircraft per year from fiscal years 2018 to 2021.
"We have the infrastructure in place," said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation. "Bottom line is we've had a very anemic ramp, so we've been holding onto the older airplanes longer. If asked by the American people to get the airplanes faster, I guarantee we'd put them into play very, very quickly.
"We'd transition squadrons faster is what we'd do," he said, adding that if the service were allowed to purchase 37 B-variants a year, it would be able to retire its legacy F/A-18 Hornet and Harrier planes by 2026.
The Marine Corps currently owns about 50 F-35Bs in test, training and operations squadrons, and is gradually making the shift from Hornets and Harriers to F-35s, Davis said. In January, it relocated 10 F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 from Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, Arizona to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan — marking the first international deployment of the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing version.
Next up, a Hornet squadron — VMFA 122 from MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina — will transition to an F-35B squadron based at MCAS Yuma. Following that, another F-18 squadron, VMFA 314, will become the Marine Corps’ first F-35C squadron.
Davis’ comments on the F-35 echo a similar debate in the Air Force about the optimal pace of joint strike fighter purchases, and how demand for the fifth-generation fighter can be balanced with other priorities. Last summer, Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, the outgoing head of Air Combat Command, told reporters that he would like to see yearly F-35A procurement by the Air Force increase to 60 planes as quickly as possible. Currently, the service is set to buy about 40 planes per year until 2021.
At a breakfast event Tuesday, the Air Force chief of staff said that he would like to see faster F-35 acquisition, but questioned whether it would be the service’s top budget priority.
"The more F-35s that we could actually procure in the shortest period of time to be able to reduce the aircraft age and be able to get more heavily into the fifth-generation business is clearly a priority," Gen. David Goldfein said. "Is it the number one place that I would spend dollars? That’s going to be a department-level discussion."