The Marines are set to get a half-dozen new F-35B joint strike fighters to replace aircraft lost during an airfield attack in Afghanistan in 2012.
The Marines' deputy commandant for Aviation, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for Marine Aviation, said Congress had recently approved the purchase of the aircraft, which a move that will allow the Corps to jump ahead in its plans to replace legacy aircraft systems with the 5th generation fighter jet.
Six Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers were destroyed in a single night at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan when disguised Taliban fighters rushed the airfield. The attack, which also resulted in the deaths of Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, was called the worst losst of U.S. aircraft in a single incident since the Vietnam era.
The Marine Corps requested $1.01 billion to purchase the F-35s in early 2014 as part of a $2.5 billion unfunded priorities wish list submitted to Congress. Davis said the buy had been was approved this year and the aircraft would likely come online in 2018.
"It's great; it allows us to stand up a squadron a little bit early. So we really appreciate that," he said.
A spokesman for Marine Corps Aviation, Maj. Paul Greenberg, said the provision for the six additional F-35s was in both the House and Senate versions of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act as the bill enters conference deliberations. The measure awaits final approval, he said.
Davis, who spoke Wednesday about the future of Marine Corps aviation at a think tank event in Washington, D.C., said the new F-35s would allow the service Marines to deactivate a squadron of F/A-18 Hornets, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron VMFA-122 out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, about a year earlier than had been was planned. It will also accelerate the activation of another F-35 squadron, he said.
The Marine Corps expects to replace all of its their Hornet squadrons with F-35s by 2030, though the is plan hinges on a review, assessment and final decision in 2019. Joint strike fighters will also replace the Marines' Harriers by 2026, according to the Marine Corps' 10-year aviation plan.
"We'll be able to move out of classics a little bit early," Davis said.
Davis was bullish on the future of the joint strike fighter following the Marines' declaration of initial operational capability for the aircraft July 31. He said told an audience Wednesday that the Marines' first operational F-35B squadron, VMFA-121, had excelled during an intensive readiness inspection and scenarios involving discovery of obscure targets in a high-threat environment during testingbefore being approved for IOC.
"The performance of VMFA-122, and the entire Marine Corps F-35B team over the past several years, has reinforced my feeling that we not only have great Marines in this program, but that we are giving them the right aircraft," he said.