The F-35B Joint Strike Fighter is deploying for the first time aboard a U.S. Navy ship, marking a historic milestone for the Pentagon's most lethal jet as the Marine-variant enters operational exercises in the Pacific.
The short takeoff/vertical landing F-35s from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 on Monday arrived on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp for patrols in the region, according to an announcement from the Navy's 7th Fleet.
The stealth jet's arrival also marks the start of the F-35's first deployment a Marine expeditionary unit. The squadron will sail the Pacific aboard the ships of the Okinawa-based 31st MEU this spring.
"Pairing F-35B Lightning II [aircraft] with the Wasp represents one of the most significant leaps in warfighting capability for the Navy-Marine Corps team in our lifetime," Rear Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 7, said in a statement. "This 5th-generation stealth jet is extremely versatile, and will greatly enhance and expand our operational capabilities."
VMFA-121 pilots will first practice and conduct qualification flights for the first few weeks before they head out for missions as part of the 31st MEU, the only forward-deployed MEU in the Pacific.
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The drills are a part of a multi-mission 'up-gunned [expeditionary strike group]' concept, which strings together the lethality of the MEU, the F-35s and offensive capabilities of surface ships, the release said.
"This is a historic deployment," Col. Tye R. Wallace, 31st MEU commanding officer, said in a statement. "The F-35B is the most capable aircraft ever to support a Marine rifleman on the ground. It brings a range of new capabilities to the MEU that make us a more lethal and effective Marine air-ground task force."
The Wasp departed for Sasebo, Japan, on Aug. 30 from its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, but was diverted to the Caribbean on Sept. 4 to participate in hurricane-relief efforts following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
After completing its relief mission at the end of October, the Wasp made stops in Rio de Janeiro and Joint Naval Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii as it transited from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The ship left Hawaii on Jan. 2 en route to Sasebo.
"Deployment of the versatile F-35B enhances the full range of expeditionary strike group capabilities with one of the world's most technologically-advanced air warfare platforms," Capt. Colby Howard, Wasp commanding officer, said in the release.
"With the specific upgrades Wasp has received, the Navy-Marine Corps team in the Pacific is better positioned than ever before to support our commitment to the security of Japan and the region," he said.
The Marine Corps last year deployed a squadron of F-35Bs to Iwakuni, Japan, which on Aug. 31 flew alongside B-1B bombers and both Japanese and South Korean F-15 fighters in a show of force to North Korea.
Meanwhile, a dozen F-35As are currently deployed to Kadena Air Base, Japan, as part of the first-ever F-35A theater security package, or TSP, which are forward-deployed aircraft units that conduct missions to reassure partner and ally forces and to maintain security and stability across a region.
In October, days after an F-35A touched down in Seoul, South Korea for the International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition, known as Seoul ADEX 2017, the Air Force announced its plans to deploy a dozen of the Joint Strike Fighters to Japan.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.