The Marine Corps is planning to buy more F-35Cs in order to bolster air-wings on Navy deployments. The latest USMC budget request, for FY 2020, has the service buying ten fewer F-35Bs than in FY 2019. Marine aviators are currently training on the F-35C at the Navy’s master jet base NAS Lemoore in central California.
Marine Corps aviation has not changed overall quantities of F-35s it plans to buy. This shift is front loading the F-35C orders for the next few years in order so that the Marines can deploy their squadrons on schedule as currently scheduled. Current Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) sees F-35B orders down by eight air-frames over the next three years from previous plans, and F-35C orders increased by nine air-frames across the same time-frame. FYDP plans beyond 2023 are unclear at this time.
The F-35B will stay the dominant F-35 variant in Marine Corps service, flying off the Navy’s nine LHDs and LHA. The amphibious assault ships will remain the core platform for Marine aviation, supporting the Marines’ mission of amphibious and expeditionary warfare. The F-35B completed its first deployment on the USS Essex in February of this year, with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 embarked. The deployment covered both the Pacific and the Middle East, the latter of which saw F-35s from the Essex conducting airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria late last year.
The balance between the F-35B and -C models means that training and maintenance requirements become easier as the service goes two air-frames with significant commonality. Currently, the Marines fly four fixed wing types, the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18C/D Hornet, and both types of the F-35. The Marines retired the long-serving EA-6B Prowler last month. Current Marine Corps aircraft inventories have the service at roughly eighty percent fourth generation air-frames, Harriers and Hornets, and twenty percent fifth generation F-35s.
According to current plans, Navy Strike Fighter squadron (VFA) 147 will conduct the first F-35C deployment on-board a carrier, while VMFA 314 will conduct the second. Lt. General Steve Rudder, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Aviation said, “As we look at, for us, the Marine Corps being an inside force and we are deployed forward … I think if you look at the competition from 2025 into 2030, fifth-gen for us as an inside force will be required to win.”