MCAS Iwakuni Continues to Strengthen Marine Corps Aviation in the Pacific with F-35B

The U.S. Marine Corps’ Marine Air Group 12 (MAG-12) recently declared Full Operational Capability (FOC) of VMFA-242 last month, based out of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. This is a monumental event for the air group, which redesignated the ‘Bats’ as an F-35B squadron on October 16, 2020.

MCAS Iwakuni has been home to the Marine Corps’ forward-based fifth-gen aviation since 2017, following the relocation of VMFA-121 ‘Green Knights’ to Iwakuni from MCAS Yuma. VMFA-121 began its F-35 transition in early 2012 following the announcement of its redesignation from VMFA (All Weather)-121 to VMFA-121. The squadron was the Corps’ first operational F-35 squadron and was previously equipped with the F/A-18C/D Hornet. VMFA-242, like its sister squadron, recently began its transition from F/A-18C/D Hornets, which the squadron has been flying since 1990. The FOC milestone for VMFA-242 will bring the number of fifth-gen airframes in MCAS Iwakuni to 32, further enhancing the combat capabilities of the Marine Corps in the Indo-Pacific. 

Two F-35B Lightning II aircraft assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 land on the flight deck aboard amphibious assault carrier USS Tripoli (LHA 7), June 4, 2022. Tripoli is conducting routine operations in U.S. 7th Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Maci Sternod)

VMFA-121 and VMFA-242 have been instrumental in fleshing out the Concepts of Operations (CONOPs) for the Marine Corps’ “lightning carrier” concept. The concept, which is spearheaded by the Marines, pairs more F-35Bs with the USS America-class amphibious assault ships. A contingent of pilots and maintainers from VMFA-121 supported early demonstrations of the concept on USS America (LHA-6) in 2016, paving the way for follow-on demos by other units in 2018 and 2019, with the USS America having more than a dozen F-35Bs onboard for the latter. 

USS Tripoli and Marine Aircraft Group 13 demonstrate Lightning Carrier Concept (U.S. Navy)

The latest iteration of the Lightning Carrier concept involves the USS Tripoli (LHA-7) which took aboard 20 F-35Bs, the highest amount of F-35s put on a naval platform, surpassing the previous record of 18 aircraft set by the HMS Queen Elizabeth during its historic CSG21 deployment which also involved Marine Corps F-35Bs from VMFA-225. VMFA-221 embarked its F-35Bs on the USS Tripoli alongside VMFA-225, the amphibious ship also took aboard operational test aircraft from VMX-1.

After leaving for its solo deployment to the 7th Fleet area of operations, the ship took aboard aircraft from VMFA-121 upon its arrival in Japan. The ship and its aviation complement took part in exercise Valiant Shield 2022, where VMFA-121 deployed ashore to Guam to conduct Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations together with F-18Cs of VMFA(AW)-533. The ship is also expected to take part in exercise RIMPAC which will begin 29 June.

Beyond shaping the Marine Corps’ amphibious aviation, MCAS Iwakuni also provides combat-ready F-35Bs that can train with and integrate into allied forces in the region. Much like VMFA-225’s historic integration with the Royal Navy, VMFA-242 was involved in a similar event with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) when aircraft from the squadron landed on the JS Izumo last year.

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 242 conducts a vertical landing aboard the Japanese Ship Izumo off the coast of Japan, Oct. 3, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler Harmon)

The declaration of FOC for VMFA-242 follows a similar trend to the Air Force’s 354th Fighter Wing, which also completed its full stand-up of two F-35A squadrons earlier this year. The Navy is also expected to bring F-35Cs from VFA-97 when the USS George Washington replaces USS Ronald Reagan as the forward-deployed carrier. These recent stand-ups of F-35 squadrons have been driven by services either retiring and transitioning from legacy aircraft or else standing up new F-35 squadrons in the region.