Pentagon officials have declared a new stealth fighter plane operational, meaning the next-generation joint strike fighter can now be deployed overseas for the first time. But the announcement is expected to have only a minor impact in the operations of a South Carolina-based unit flying the planes.
The U.S. Marines announced Friday that the first squadron flying the F-35B Lightning II had reached initial operating capacity, meaning it could be deployed internationally once it is deemed final operational capacity. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), based in Yuma, Arizona, flies ten of the new joint strike fighter’s “B” variant.
“The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our Nation with its first 5th generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said in the announcement.
The move has little impact on a training squadron based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, however. The jets with VMFA-501 began operating out of Beaufort last year after moving from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Ten F-35Bs are based at Beaufort as of July, according to station spokesman Capt. Clay Groover.
The air base stated in a news release that 16 pilots had trained with the squadron — part of what the Defense Department says were about 50 overall Marine pilots and 500 trained support and maintenance crew.
“The mission of the squadron is to train pilots and maintenance Marines for the F-35,” said the squadron’s commanding officer Lt. Col. Joseph T. Bachmann. “We currently have 16 pilots, and are three-quarters away from the pilot training requirements for the year.”
The F-35B has short take off and vertical landing capabilities, meaning it only needs approximately 550 feet of runway to execute a short takeoff, which is about a third of the takeoff distance of the current F/A-18 Hornet.
MCAS Beaufort is scheduled to eventually host two training and two active F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter squadrons within the next 20 years. The United Kingdom is also slated to use Beaufort for the training of Royal Air Force pilots in the F-35. Groover said the latest Marines plans have 70 planes stationed at the base by 2040, but he warned those numbers are likely to change.
The planes’ have been delayed several times due to production and testing issues.