F-35B Preps for Combat on 1st Middle East Deployment

An F-35B Lightning II launches from the USS Essex (LHD 2) during a regularly scheduled deployment of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). (U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Sabyn L. Marrs)
An F-35B Lightning II launches from the USS Essex (LHD 2) during a regularly scheduled deployment of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). (U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Sabyn L. Marrs)

Marines are loading bombs onto the F-35B and dropping them over the desert as ground troops prep for combat missions during the Joint Strike Fighter's first-ever deployment to the Middle East.

About 4,500 Marines and sailors with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit are putting their combat skills to the test this month in the Horn of Africa. They're participating in a two-week-long Theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal that includes everything from quick-reaction force drills, deck-landing qualifications, simulated recovery of downed pilots and aircraft, and counter-mine training.

The sailors are operating from aboard several Navy ships, including the ARG's amphibious assault ship Essex, amphibious transport dock Anchorage and dock landing ship Rushmore. The Marines have pushed ashore into Djibouti, where the MEU is training for crisis-response missions requiring close-air support.

For the first time in theater, that support is coming from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211's F-35B crews.

"We've been transiting a long way across the Pacific and haven't had a lot of opportunity to do close-air support," Lt. Col. Kyle Shoop, the squadron's commanding officer, told Military.com from aboard the Essex. "Everything from the deck crew loading ordnance to [pilots] knocking off the rust in terms of deploying bombs, shooting the gun and practicing our all-weather close-air-support capability."

Pilots are using the F-35B's series of sophisticated sensors and radars to locate targets identified on the ground by members of Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.

Back out over the water, Shoop said the F-35B brings a host of new capabilities when it comes to defending the entire ARG/MEU team.

The pilots are learning new things about the F-35B and its software every day, he said. The F-35B can set alerts and launch interceptors to defend the ships if necessary.

All of that brings new abilities the aging fleet of AV-8B Harriers does not have, said Navy Capt. Gerald Olin, the ARG/MEU's commodore and commander of Amphibious Squadron 1.

"Its sensor suite and data fusion has the ability to carry [much more] information back to the ships," Olin said. "We're able to closely integrate that into the maritime picture that I'm trying to build. ... It's really a game changer for me."

Col. Chandler Nelms, the 13th MEU's commanding officer, agrees, and said the F-35B pilots are able to seamlessly transition from supporting ground troops to defending the entire amphibious task force.

"One of the things I've marveled at about this, with this aircraft being a part of the MEU, is how well it supports both the Marine on the ground in an air-to-ground role and yet defends the force as an air-to-air role," he said. "... It can really do all of that at the same time. It's just an incredible capability it has brought to the ARG/MEU team that we all leverage to be a more lethal force."

Getting the opportunity to put those capabilities on display mid-deployment not only helps the sailors and Marines prepare for what could come next, Nelms added, but also shows the combatant commander and allies in the region what's possible.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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