Miramar Marine Corps Air Station will begin converting its jet squadrons to the stealthy F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, triggering major construction projects in the coming months, Lt. Gen. Jon "Dog" Davis told San Diego's military and business leaders on Wednesday.
In remarks to the San Diego Military Advisory Council, Davis, the Marines Corps' deputy commandant for aviation, said construction "will start next year" and that the project is already fully funded.
Davis also said Miramar is slated to receive the ultra-high-tech, ultra-expensive jets earlier than previously scheduled, following a revised Marine plan to scrap the Corps' aging F-18 Hornet fleet. The Marines report that more than half of their 280 Hornets cannot deploy for combat, he added.
"We want to get to the F-35s as quickly as we can," said Davis, a career strike aviator with more than 4,500 hours of flight time.
The Marines will get both F-35B and F-35C variants of the jet. An F-35B is designed for short landings and vertical takeoffs, similar to the way a Harrier II operates, while an F-35C can fly on and off an aircraft carrier.
After Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 returns from its upcoming deployment, those "Black Knights" will convert to the Corps' first F-35C squadron, with a new double hangar being built at Miramar to house the new planes, Davis said.
Meanwhile, he said, the "Vikings" of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 225 will transition to the F-35B.
Miramar spokesman Capt. Kurt Stahl told The San Diego Union-Tribune that F-35Cs are slotted to arrive in late 2019 or early 2020, and the F-35Bs would come a few months later. By 2030, the Marine Corps expects to retire all of its F-18 aircraft.
"Construction design plans are already in the works," Stahl said. "Several construction projects are expected to be completed over the next several years to include a new hangar for the F-35C and F-35B squadrons, an F-35 simulator facility and vertical landing pads. Construction on the F-35 hangar is scheduled to break ground at the beginning of 2018 and is expected to be complete by the end of 2019."
Miramar has hosted F-35s in the past. Both the autumn 2015 and 2016 airshows at the base showcased the aircraft.
Miramar will join the Navy's air station in Lemoore as the second home of the F-35C in California. On Jan. 25, a quartet of the new jets formed the core of Strike Fighter Squadron 125, the "Rough Raiders." As a designated fleet replacement squadron, it is training the next generation of F-35C aviators on the West Coast.
Two F-35B squadrons headquartered at the Marines' air station in Yuma, Arizona, also are now classified "operational." The "Green Knights" of Fighter Squadron 121 are on deployment now in Japan. The "Wake Avengers" of Squadron 211 are scheduled for sea duty near the Middle East in 2018.
Plagued by cost overruns and mechanical gremlins, the $379 billion Joint Strike Fighter project for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps infamously became known in the Pentagon as "acquisition malpractice." With mounting delays in getting the fighters to the fleet, the Navy is scrambling to revamp its aging Hornet strike aircraft, pushing them far beyond their anticipated service lives.
To keep the Marines' Harrier II ground-attack planes in the air, the Corps bought scrapped British jets to cannibalize for parts.
Today, Davis said, the Marines' Harriers have become "most reliable" portion of the Corps' strike fleet, thanks to an 84-point plan over the past three years to restore the jet squadrons to combat readiness.
Using an Army blueprint, Davis said the Marines found similar success revamping their CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopter fleet. A "complete reset program" turned the chopper from a "teeth-sucking thing" into a "high reliability piece of gear," according to Davis.
"I'd say it's contentious because it's taken about twice as long as we thought it was, but the (aircraft) that come out of the reset are the highest readiness helicopters in the Marine Corps."