FARNBOROUGH, England --The U.S. Marine Corps is months away from conducting crucial at-sea tests with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that will zero in on the aircraft's ability to operate from a ship and the logistics of maintenance underway.
Speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow on Monday, the commanding officer of Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1), Col. George Rowell, said the unit was gearing up for Developmental Test 3 for the F-35B short take-off and vertical lift variant of the aircraft.
The three-and-a-half week exercise will begin in October and take place aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6), the first in a new class of ships built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. and with key design elements to accommodate the fifth-generation fighter made by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Most strikingly, the design of America-class ships eliminates a well deck for landing craft, dedicating more space aboard the ship to hangars to accommodate up to six F-35Bs, 12 MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and a complement of Marine Corps helicopters.
In March, the America wrapped up a ten-month period of maintenance that included deck-strengthening measures needed to accommodate regular F-35 take-offs, which can scorch and melt a conventional hangar deck over time.
Rowell told Military.com the test would evaluate F-35 operations in high-sea state, landings aboard the amphib, and night operations. Perhaps even more significantly, it would simulate extensive maintenance aboard ship.
"We're going to take a VMX jet to the ship, put it in the hangar bay, tear it apart, and put it together again, just to make sure that everything goes well," he said.
The maintenance work will include the replacement of a lift fan, the specialized equipment made by Rolls Royce and Pratt and Whitney that gives the F-35B variant its short take-off "jump jet" capability, Rowell said.
"I know it will be great, but these are just those things where we go, 'OK, I think it will be good,'" he said.
The test will also incorporate interoperability operations in which the aircraft are moved around the ship in simulation of real-world operations.
"Maybe we'll get some other aircraft out there too to see some loading of the deck and the ship," Rowell said.
The F-35 has twice completed previous shipboard testing aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, which recently deployed to the Middle East after more than a decade without a deployment. The America tests will feature perhaps the most accurate snapshot of future amphibious operations as the new class of ship and fifth-generation fighter pair up.
It will take place just months before the Marines forward-deploy an F-35 squadron, VMFA-121, to Japan, where the aircraft will go out on ships with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The Marine Corps now has 45 F-35s. In all, the service plans to purchase 353 F-35Bs and 63 F-35C carrier-variant planes to populate 20 squadrons.
USS America (LHA 6) arrives June 30, 2016, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for Rim of the Pacific exercise. (Photo by John Herman/U.S. Navy)