United States Marine Corps aviators continue to fly high in their Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighters, and this week reached a new milestone with its first squadron becoming fully equipped and ready for war.
Earlier this month, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California announced that its fifth-generation F-35C – the carrier-based variant of the Joint Strike Fighter – has achieved full operational capability (FOC).
The squadron, known as the “Black Knights,” is now ready for full operations.
“Many hours were spent maintaining aircraft, launching and recovering aircraft in Miramar, at other military facilities, and aboard the ship to conduct the training required to meet these goals,” said Maj. Derek Heinz, the operations officer for VMFA-314, via an official press release. “The Marines of VMFA-314 have gained confidence in fighting this aircraft and feel confident we can do so in combat if called upon.”
The unit, which falls under the command of Marine Aircraft Group 11 (MAG-11) and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3d MAW), deploys with the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Air Wing nine. It was the first Marine Corps squadron to transition to the carrier (CV) variant of the F-35. The unit had previously flown the F/A-18C/D aircraft, which were retired in June 2019 when the Black Knights began training on the F-35C.
The FOC for the F-35C has been seen as significant as it means that VMFA-314 is now fully prepared and equipped to be deployed on a U.S. Navy carrier – and it was accomplished even before a Navy F-35C squadron.
“VMFA-314 is the first F-35C squadron in the Marine Corps to declare FOC. They are now full up round and bring the incredible 5th generation capability to 3rd MAW. They will deploy as part of a Carrier Strike Group next year.” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, 3rd MAW commanding general. “FOC for the Black knights is yet another step forward in achieving Force Design objectives. The Black Knights are ready- 3rd MAW is ready.”
The unit has reached operational capability, but training will continue.
“VMFA-314 is currently continuing its preparations towards future deployments by conducting tailored ship’s training availability (TSTA), marking the first F-35C squadron to conduct TSTA in the Marine Corps,” the Marine Corps said via the release. “This training will consist of communication rehearsals, medical drills, flight operations, and shipboard drills conducted while underway, ensuring the squadron is prepared to deploy in support of maritime campaigns.”
The squadron’s benchmark comes as the Marine Corps continues its Force Design 2030 initiative, an effort to modernize the service for operating in a region like the Indo-Pacific, USNI News reported. The Marine Corps is currently assessing the number of F-35Bs and F-35Cs that it will eventually acquire.
“Regardless of the final [Approved Acquisition Objective] for F-35, we will be unable to generate a competitive warfighting advantage for the fleets and joint force if we are unable to maintain these aircraft due to a shortfall of qualified maintainers,” the report from April noted. “Our current model for retention of these critical personnel is failing. We must change the talent management model if we are to realize the full potential of this capability.”
According to Business Insider, the Marine Corps has plans to buy sixty-seven of the F-35Cs for use on carriers, along with 353 F-35Bs, the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.