The pace at which the Marine Corps is getting its new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter aircraft is "anemic," the service's head of aviation said this week, adding that the Corps could handle a much faster ramp-up.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Jon "Dog" Davis, deputy commandant of aviation, spoke highly of the Corps' new fifth-generation aircraft. The first Marine F-35B squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, relocated to Japan in January in a transition that Davis said was smooth and without incident.
Right now, he said, the Marine Corps owns 50 F-35Bs in two operational squadrons, one training squadron, and a test unit. The service declared initial operational capability for the aircraft in 2015.
"The bottom line is, we've had a very anemic ramp so we've been holding on to the older airplanes longer," he said. "If asked by the American people to get the airplanes faster, I can guarantee we'd put them into play very quickly."
Davis said he believes the Corps could accept up to 37 aircraft a year, between two and three squadrons' worth. The current transition plan has the service receiving the last of the 353 F-35B and 67 F-35C aircraft it plans to buy in 2031, a rate that works out to fewer than 30 aircraft a year. The sped-up plan would see the Marine Corps complete its F-35 transition five years early.
"We'd transition squadrons faster is what we'd do," Davis said. "We'd develop a plan where we'd be out of F-18 and Harrier completely by 2026."
The F-35 is gradually replacing three legacy aircraft for the Marine Corps: the EA-6B Prowler, the AV-8B Harrier, and the F/A-18 Hornet, which will all gradually retire as they reach the end of their service lives.
In a real way, the Corps is betting the farm on the Joint Strike Fighter. The service plans to deploy VMFA-121 in the Pacific in the next year, and deploy another squadron aboard ship, likely in the Middle East, shortly thereafter.
Davis said he's very confident in the platform, based on what he's seen so far.
"It's different than conventional fourth-generation fighters, like the Harrier and the Hornet, but I think it's an exceptional capability. It's just at the beginning of its production run and its development run, but I think we've got a winner on our hands here," he said. "And the bottom line is, future generations of Marines will be able to fight in any clime and place with close-air support from this airplane. If I was a young [aviator], I would be fighting to get in this airplane."