NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter is still a bit of a boot to the Marine Corps’ jet fleet, despite notching three deployments and conducting strike missions in the Middle East.
But that hasn’t slowed the service’s experiments with its high-tech fighter. Sailing the South China Sea in the early months of 2019, the amphibious assault ship Wasp hauled 10 of the stealthy planes on its flattop flight deck — four more than is typically embarked on a big deck amphib.
The “mini lightning carriers” provide another “tool in the toolkit" for combatant commanders, Marine Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, the deputy commandant for aviation, said at the 2019 Sea-Air-Space exposition here on Monday.
“We were able to turn sorties off that like you would mini lightning carriers," Rudder told the expo audience.
Marines found that increasing the sorties of combat fighters risks reducing lift capacity. To fit the four additional F-35Bs on board, crews had to leave behind six MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.
A Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, typically plans on carrying six F-35s or other fighter aircraft, plus about 10 MV-22s.
To Rudder, it all depends on what the mission will be and which tools commanders need to pull from the kit to accomplish it.
He pointed to a scenario where an assault force or its rotary wing aircraft already have been positioned ashore and the commander needs more combat air power.
The mini-carrier concept is not something a commander would use in every situation, but it provides another option to battle an enemy, Rudder said.
It’s also not the first time the Corps has experimented with the concept.
During the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Navy positioned two big deck amphibs off the coast, each boasting more than 20 AV-8B Harrier II jump jets, Rudder told Defense News.
That turned them into essentially Harrier carriers and the Corps used them for combat sorties.
The Marines had pushed their rotary wing and lift capability ashore, allowing for additional Harriers on the deck.
Rudder said that the F-35B mini-carrier experiments were only a portion of the lessons the Marines have learned from employing the stealthy strike fighters during three overseas deployments.
The fighter conducted its first combat strikes against targets in Afghanistan with the 13th MEU, traversed the Indo-Pacific command theater with the 31st MEU, and participated in last month’s Balikatan bilateral exercise with the Philippines.
The Navy commander of Amphibious Squadron 1, Capt. Gerald Olin, told Marine Corps Times that F-35Bs defended the task force, something they weren’t able to do with Harriers.
The 13th MEU experimented with the F-35B as both a deck-launched interceptor and in anti-air and anti-surface roles.
The aircraft’s sensors painted a detailed picture for commanders and generated intelligence of the battle space, allowing planners to distribute and decentralize the warships, he said.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.