A September exercise that saw Marine F-35Bs operate off Britain’s newest aircraft carrier might mark a future of increased interoperability and flexibility for the Corps.
The Marine squadron, also known as VMFA-211, or the Wake Island Avengers, sent 10 F-35Bs, from its home base on Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, to the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, where they operated alongside the United Kingdom’s Joint Squadron 617, the Dambusters.
Col. Simon Doran, the U.S. senior national representative to the U.K.'s carrier strike group, told Marine Corps Times in an October phone interview that the exercise was part of the Corps' “building block approach” to interoperability.
“This is my opinion,” Doran said. But, “imagine a world where you’re agnostic as to whether the ship you are operating from has USS or HMS on it. That really increases the flexibility and the potential lethality of both nations.”
The next step in the process will take place in 2021 when the Marines once again join the Queen Elizabeth to take part in a full length deployment, 1st Lt. Zachary Bodner, a spokesman for the Marine Corps said.
In addition to potentially providing the Corps with increased deployment flexibility, the deployment on the newest U.K. carrier provided Marines with opportunities they do not have on the flat top amphibious assault ships the squadron normally deploys on.
The Queen Elizabeth comes with a “ski-jump” ramp on its deck to aid planes taking off from the ship.
And for one young pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, taking off with the “ski-jump” was just like going over the crest of a roller coaster.
“It’s an incredible experience as an aviation enthusiast to be able to this as an American pilot on a British ship,” Capt. Craig Norris said.
A transatlantic relationship
For Norris, the exercise was not only the opportunity to be one of the few Marines to experience the “ski-jump” take-off, but also a chance to reunite with old comrades.
Norris started training on the F-35B in early 2018 with Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, based out of Marine Corps Air Station, Beaufort, South Carolina, at a time when several British pilots were moving through the squadron to learn how to fly the nation’s most advanced jet.
When Norris landed his F-35B on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth he was reunited with several of the young British pilots he met during his time at the training squadron.
“It felt really special to reconnect,” Norris told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview. “Once we got here, the relationships were already established, and it was just a really cool environment,” Norris said.
Those relationships helped the Marine seamlessly integrate with the pilots of 617 Squadron while conducting training missions in the North Sea, Norris said.
It speaks “to just how joined the F-35 program is with our partner nations and how a United States F-35 pilots or a United Kingdom F-35 pilot can seamlessly transition,” Norris said.
For Marine Sgt. Alex Cotter, a 6218 mechanic in the squadron, the biggest advantage was just the sheer space his section had to work on the planes, along with the increased privacy given to the Marines on the roomy Queen Elizabeth.
The berthings on the Queen Elizabeth are eight to a room for junior enlisted, compared to the open squad bays that would berth roughly 100 Marines on the amphibious assault ship Essex, that Cotter previously deployed on.
“The ship in general is a lot larger than what I am used to,” Cotter said in a phone interview.
The increased size made storing all the tools necessary to work on the planes a significantly simpler task, Cotter said.
For Cotter watching his British counterparts work gave the Marine an opportunity to size up just how good U.S. Marines were compared to the rest of the world.
“We work at a lot higher tempo,” Cotter said.
Both the U.K. and the U.S. see this exercise as a starting point that can be leveraged to increase the fire power and flexibility of both militaries.
“HMS Queen Elizabeth will be operating with the largest air group of 5th generation fighters assembled anywhere in the world,” Commodore Steve Moorhouse, commander UK CSG, said in a Marine Corps press release in September.
“Led by the Royal Navy, and backed by our closest allies, this new Carrier Strike Group puts real muscle back into NATO; and sends a clear signal that the United Kingdom takes its global role seriously,” Moorhouse added.
That future would rely on the uniquely close alliance the U.S. and Britain have, known as the “special relationship” since the mid-1940s.
“This deployment shows all you need to know about the special relationship,” Robert Johnson IV, the U.S. ambassador to Britain said in the Marine Corps release. “What America and Britain have together is a level of trust and collaboration that goes beyond any other partnership in the world."
The unique nature of the exercise brought a lot of high level attention.
In addition to Johnson, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black, Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite and Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, NATO’s European supreme allied commander, all visited the ship during the exercise, according to the Marine Corps.
While the VIP visits did bring some increased scrutiny on the Marines of VMFA-211, it was nothing the squadron couldn’t handle, Lt. Col. Joseph Freshour, the squadron’s commander told Marine Corps Times.
“There’s immense amounts of pressure to perform, but I think our day-to-day job that’s always there, and that’s always present,” Freshour said in an October phone interview.
The unit is no stranger to making history in the vertical take-off variant of the F-35.
In 2018 the squadron, while deployed on the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was the first unit to fly the F-35B in a combat mission, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
Freshour, who took over the squadron in 2019, said leading a unit with so many historical firsts in the F-35B made him feel fortunate and was a big morale booster for the Marines in his command.
“It helps incredibly with the morale of the Marines to know they’re part of something that’s this unique and this high end,” he added.