Eighteen months after receiving its first fifth-generation jet fighter, the F-35C Lightning II, a California-based squadron is ready for a carrier deployment and full combat operations.

The squadron was the first to achieve that status among not only Marine aviators but aviation units for all the services.

Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, VMFA 314, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, at Miramar, California, reached that pivotal mark in early July, according to a news release.

“They will deploy as part of a Carrier Strike Group next year,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, 3rd MAW commanding general, in the release.

This unit is on the precipice of major changes sweeping all of Marine Corps aviation following the Marine Corps Force Design 2030 and specifically the service’s 2019 aviation plan.

“FOC for the Black Knights is yet another step forward in achieving Force Design objectives. The Black Knights are ready — 3rd MAW is ready,” Mahoney said.

In December 2020, VMFA-314 had its jets at initial operating capability, meaning the aircraft met Marine Corps standards for the number of trained Marines, mission-ready aircraft and trained pilots to deploy, if needed, according to a previous press release.

The squadron formerly flew and maintained the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

The F-35C is designed specifically for carrier takeoff. With larger wings and stronger landing gear than the F-35B variant, it is optimized to withstand the catapult launches and arrestments needed for carrier launch and landings.

The newer jet also has greater range, holding more fuel than most other single-seat jets, with 20,000 pounds of internal fuel storage available.

Marines have been working with the F-35B, a short runway, vertical takeoff variant in the F-35 family, for years, but this is the first carrier-specific F-35 unit to reach this status so far.

Both the Air Force and Navy have its own measures for qualifying fully combat-ready, and due to larger jet fleets and basing measures have not yet met the fully operational capability mark set for themselves.

The Marine Corps has budget goals of buying 67 F-35s in addition to the undisclosed number already in the fleet, according to Military.com. The Navy is aiming for 273 carrier-capable F35Cs and the Air Force has a whopping 1,763 in its purchase plans.

The F-35B also first reached initial operational capability with a Marine unit back in 2015. It was first flown in combat off the amphibious assault ship Essex in 2018 during a strike in Afghanistan, also by Marines.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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