The amphibious assault ship Wasp, one of a handful of amphibs specifically deck-hardened and retrofitted to carry the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, entered the U.S. 7th Fleet on Saturday, according to an announcement from Navy officials.
There, the ship will eventually be loaded with aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, which moved forward to Japan a year ago to prepare for the deployment.
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.
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According to the Navy announcement, aircraft attached to the ship flew a total of 108 missions to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, transporting more than 1,100 passengers, and carrying more than 328,000 pounds of food and water to hurricane-affected areas.
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, officials said.
Marine Corps officials have not released the timeline of the Wasp's upcoming deployment with F-35Bs as part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, or commented on whether hurricane relief will affect the timeline.
While sources have said to expect the MEU to deploy this spring, a Marine spokeswoman, Capt. Sarah Burns, would say only that the deployment was set for this calendar year.
For the Marine Corps, the first shipboard deployment of the F-35B will be more than the projection of a powerful new airframe; it will also be the first opportunity to exercise a capability for which the service paid dearly.
The F-35B was designed with a powerful lift fan that gives the aircraft short takeoff and vertical lift capability, exclusively for the purpose of launching from the amphibious ships that carry Marines around the world.
Dakota Wood, senior research fellow for Defense Programs at the Heritage Foundation and a former strategic planner for the commandant of the Marine Corps, said he will be paying close attention to how well the F-35's complex systems and logistical footprint integrate with everything else on the ship during a real deployment.
"I think the Iwakuni deployment was very important because you're forward-deploying all the logistical support that is required for those environments, specialized equipment needed to access and repair and maintain," Wood told Military.com. "The next step, actually deploying the squadron aboard a ship, that's a major step forward, because what it means is you've got shipboard versions of all that logistical capability."
Though tensions have been rising in the Pacific as North Korea tests missiles and makes threats, the deployment is expected to consist of training and routine operations.
It comes shortly before the deployment of another F-35B squadron, VMFA-211, set to depart with the 13th MEU aboard the amphibious assault ship Essex later this year. That deployment, to the 5th Fleet area of operations, could well offer the Joint Strike Fighter its first taste of combat in the Middle East.
Officials with the 13th MEU announced this week that the unit had composited on the West Coast, meaning all units had come together for pre-deployment training. The step typically takes place six months before a deployment.
"It's much more likely that the F-35Bs on the Essex, over Syria or Afghanistan, you could potentially see F-35s rolled into [combat] operations," Wood said.
He added that the Essex deployment may offer opportunities to fly the F-35B with an external weapons load, in addition to its stealth internal load.
"So it's another opportunity to try out the airplane in a different configuration," he said.