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Commentary: iPad-Generation Pilots Will Unlock F-35 Capabilities

Jul. 30, 2014 - 11:52AM   |  
By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake   |   Comments
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Far from the PR fighting fields of Farnborough, the US Marine Corps is preparing for asurge in the combat capability of the Navy-Marine air/ground expeditionary force. The first squadron destined for initial operational capability (IOC) of the F-35B is the “Green Knights” of VMFA-121 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. The aviators and maintainers of this storied squadron are working to bring the first F-35B squadron into service next year, along with Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1).

Their approach for an earlier template of innovation can be seen in the dramatic changes associated with the Osprey, which has made Marines the only tilt-rotor-enabled assault force in the world. With the combination of the Osprey and the F-35B, Marine infantry will be able to operate at distances of over a thousand miles. This is a unique 21st-century combat capability.

The key to the future, as demonstrated at Yuma, is to put the F-35B in the hands of the operators. Already the pilots of VMFA-121 are working closely with Air Force pilots as that service prepares for its IOC in 2016. The Navy is also involved but with less urgency.

As Maj. Gregory Summa, the executive officer of VMFA-121, said, “Working with the other service pilots provides an important window on where we want to go with the concepts of operations of the aircraft. We have different backgrounds — Harrier, F-18s, F-16s, F-22s and F-15s — but we understand that given the commonality of the aircraft, these different backgrounds suggest common ways ahead. We are all able to contribute to the way ahead for a common aircraft.”

Some different ways of operating are suggesting themselves. Historically, there is a one-to-one relationship between combat and mission support aircraft for certain types of insertion missions.

“With the F-35 and its combination of stealth and fused combat missions, we can reduce dramatically the need for mission support aircraft in initial operations,” Summa said. “For example, a non-kinetic electronic warfare option is one button push away.”

The co-location of VFMA-121 with MAWTS-1 is an important part of the aircraft’s introduction. While VFMA-121 is preparing it for IOC, MAWTS-1 is responsible for the tactics and training for USMC aviation. F-35 MAWTS instructors are flying with VFMA-121 to shape concepts of how to standardize fleet operations for the F-35B.

According to Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund, a former MAWTS-1 commanding officer and now commanding general of 2nd Marine Air Wing (MAW), “VFMA-121 will figure out how to kill the enemy more effectively and MAWTS will standardize the approach.”

Clearly, USMC experience will be informed by the pilots and operators of other services, including allied partners.

Again, an earlier focus on synergy between operators and evolving concepts of operations is underscored by recent successful Osprey combat experience. The Osprey is not a replacement for the CH-46, just as the F-35 is not a replacement for the Harrier or F-18; it is a new page of aviation combat.

It may have taken awhile for the Osprey to enter into service but it has revolutionized USMC operations. The tilt-rotor assault force changed the operational range of the entire Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Unit. An MV-22-enabled infantry force can cover more than 1,000 miles to engage in combat operations and, as seen in Odyssey Dawn in Libya, execute an unprecedented pilot rescue in record time.

Changes will become even more dramatic when the new-generation pilots become the operators of the fleet. In an interview when he was commanding general of 2nd MAW, the now deputy commander of aviation, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, referred to them as the iPad-generation pilots.

“I think it’s going to be the new generation, the newbies that are in the training command right now that are getting ready to go fly the F-35, who are going to unleash the capabilities of this jet,” Davis said. “They will say, ‘Hey, this is what the system will give me. Don’t cap me; don’t box me in.’ ”

We have already seen this with the Osprey: Pilots who have only operated Ospreys working with infantry instructors don’t think the same as an older generation.

Anyone who thinks this is a decade of treading in place for US military capabilities is missing the USMC’s transformation. The Marines are part of a nascent F-35 global enterprise, and their approach to innovation will infuse the enterprise with considerable dynamism. ■

Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake are co-authors along with Richard Weitz of Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy.

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