Since relocating from Yuma, Arizona, to Iwakuni, Japan, in January, the Marine Corps' first squadron of F-35B Joint Strike Fighters has been hard at work ironing out the basics of operations in the Pacific, from streamlining supply chains to practicing "hot reloads" and rapid ground refueling from a KC-130.
This fall, the unit -- Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 -- will deploy aboard the amphibious assault ship Wasp with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
And the squadron is well aware that a sea deployment in the tense Pacific could well entail responding to a regional crisis or a combat contingency, Lt. Col. Richard Rusnok, the squadron's commanding officer, told Military.com in an interview this month.
"When I was a young guy in [AV-8B] Harrier land in 2003, several MEUs ... were in a normal deployment and something happened, and they ended up in a bigger picture," Rusnok said, referring to MEU-based combat units dispatched to Iraq to assist with ground operations during the invasion. "That's something that could really happen. Given the small numbers of F-35s that are out there, I think [combatant commanders] are going to look at that and say, 'I've got six airplanes out on the MEU. I could do something with them.' "
VFMA-121 has hit milestones not just for the Marine Corps, but for the entire Defense Department since late 2012, when it became the first squadron to activate with the 5th-generation fighter.
The unit's reception in the Iwakuni community has been warm, Rusnok said. Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda attended the March change-of-command ceremony for the unit, and an aviation day at the air station drew a crowd of 210,000, with locals surrounding a displayed F-35B "six or seven deep," he said.
While the squadron has not begun shipboard training, set to happen later this summer, it's already preparing for the upcoming MEU deployment in practical ways, standing up and proving out logistics capabilities and supply chains for the F-35 in the Pacific.
Working Out Supply Chains
Rusnok noted that, in the space of months, the Joint Strike Fighter program went from being based almost solely in the continental United States to having aircraft in Israel, Italy and Japan, among other locations.
"That's such an incredibly complicated, such an exponential growth in geography that it's almost hard to fathom, if you rewind back several years, to see we're this far along," he said. "What we've done, I think, at Iwakuni is to break down some of these barriers and find out how that airplane is supportable in the Asia-Pacific region."
The squadron has worked with the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Program Office and aircraft maker Lockheed Martin to find faster ways to ship gear and replacement parts, and to send broken parts back to the United States to repair. With a global supply chain and a relatively small number of active aircraft, sometimes a plane in need of a part at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona must get it shipped from Iwakuni, and vice versa.
"Iwakuni is distinctly different from CONUS-based units, not only because of the tyranny of distance in the Pacific region, but we also have a wide variety of places we could potentially go," Rusnok said. "Expeditionary maintenance logistics are incredibly important to what we do."
The squadron got to hone its fighting skills earlier this month at Northern Edge, a 12-day training exercise at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
In the exercise, the largest VFMA-121 has participated in since moving forward to Iwakuni, the F-35s were able to drill on joint operations in the Western Pacific, focusing on aerial interdiction, strike warfare, air-to-air, and offensive counter-air missions.
Rusnok said the F-35's kill ratio from the exercise was not immediately available, though one of the missions he flew racked up eight kills and zero losses, he said, a fairly indicative statistic.
But he doesn't particularly like to talk about those stats.
"Everyone likes to focus on that air-to-air piece. It robs that statistic out of a bigger scenario," he said. "You never hear about the surface-to-air kills we got, the enemy systems degraded. There's a bigger picture."
The exercise, Rusnok said, also tested the F-35's ability to create a "God's-eye view" of the battlespace, with its ability to network and transmit information. Northern Edge showed, he said, that the capability remained strong, even in a dense radio frequency environment that hindered transmissions.
"Where other air systems have problems, we're able to cut through that so easily," he said. "Our ability to resist that kind of attack on the electromagnetic spectrum is huge."
Testing Maintenance Software
The squadron also brought with it a deployable version of its Autonomic Logistics Information System, a software designed to revolutionize F-35 maintenance that has been hampered by production and upgrade delays. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report questioned whether ALIS was truly able to deploy in practice, citing a lack of redundancy in the system.
"Every time we deploy this airplane, we make a decision whether to deploy ALIS or leave it home," Rusnok said.
In this case, he said, the squadron worked with the Air Force to make necessary modifications to host the ALIS deployable operating unit, hardware that travels with the squadron when connectivity is an issue. Overall, Rusnok said, the system worked well during the exercise, and preparing to use it offered insights on its future use.
"Let's say we're going to an Air Force base in Country X -- we know those facilities are now compatible with ALIS," he said. "Maybe we can take advantage of this and put it in our playbook as something we can do, optimize to really cut down on that logistics footprint."
Now back in Japan, the squadron has already begun early preparations for its upcoming deployment, conducting rapid ground refueling tests using the KC-130 Hercules and practicing "hot reloads" in which the aircraft receives new ordnance while the pilot remains in the cockpit.
The unit's pre-deployment preparations will likely provide insights for units that come after. The next F-35B deployment, aboard the amphibious assault ship Essex, will come months after VFMA-121 deploys to the Pacific and is expected to take the Corps' second F-35 squadron, VFMA-211, to the Middle East.
"Come the fall, we're going to have all the pieces in place so we can effectively deploy the squadron," Rusnok said.