An F-35C Lighting II assigned to the “Black Knights” from the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 makes an arrested landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS ‘Abraham Lincoln. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Singley
The U.S. Marine Corps is building up a small force of F-35C stealth fighters, and preparing to deploy the big-wing jets for strikes deep behind enemy—that is, Chinese—lines in the western Pacific.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Corps’ evolving deep-strike capability. The Pentagon is scrambling to work out new ways of fighting across the vast expanse of the China and Philippine Seas, where U.S. and allied air bases are few and far between and flight operations would be under constant threat of Chinese attack.
The Marines plan to overcome the tyranny of distance by flying F-35Cs on sorties extending potentially thousands of miles. Pilots are training to battle their way through enemy air-defenses, lob Joint Standoff Weapon glide-bombs at hostile forces then fight their way home.
If there’s a weakness in this concept, it’s that it absolutely depends on logistics—in particular, aerial refueling. In wartime, refueling planes would be prime targets for the enemy’s own long-range fighters.
Mark Dion, a major with the Marine Fighter-Attack Squadron 314, is part of the first cadre of USMC pilots to train for long-range, stealthy strikes. “With the F-35C we demonstrated we can do expeditionary operations and still have larger warheads including the JSOW, and have that deep-strike capability,” Dion said.
VMFA-314, which flies from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in Southern California, is the first of up to four USMC F-35C squadrons that is converting from older jets—in VMFA-314’s case, the F/A-18A/C.
The Marines in all plan to convert 22 squadrons to F-35s, each with around 10 planes. But most of the units will fly vertical-landing F-35Bs. The F-35B with its bulky lift fan is heavier and has less internal space than the other F-35 models do.
The F-35C, which has a big wing and beefy landing gear specifically for operations aboard the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers, carries an extra 7,000 pounds of fuel compared to the F-35B and also has bigger weapons bays.
The F-35B’s bays are big enough to accommodate 1,000-pound weapons. The F-35C by contrast can fit 2,000-pound munitions including JSOW glide-bombs.
The extra range and capacity make the F-35C the Marines’ best deep-strike plane. The type’s carrier capability only enhances its deep-strike role. The USMC F-35C squadrons integrate with carrier air wings—VMFA-314’s first planned deployment, to the Pacific next year, is with Carrier Air Wing Nine aboard USS Abraham Lincoln.
Here’s how it could work. Marine F-35Cs would take off from a carrier sailing in the relative safety of the east Philippine Sea or other waters far from China’s ground-based missiles.
Each clutching a pair of 70-mile-range JSOWs and a pair of AIM-120 air-to-air missiles in their internal bays, the F-35Cs would head west. Aerial tankers—Marine KC-130s or U.S. Air Force KC-135s, perhaps—would top off the F-35s every few hundred miles.
For refueling, austere bases on land also are an option. The U.S. military has been developing new concepts for quickly establishing small outposts within Chinese missile range. These rough bases might not be safe enough for a squadron to set up for a long-term stay, but they could work as refueling pit-stops for passing fighters.
Aided by a combination of aerial tankers and austere bases, the F-35Cs would exploit gaps in Chinese radar coverage in order to slip past the most dangerous air-defenses. If Chinese fighters engaged, the F-35s could fight back with AIM-120s. “All pilots are trained in mission-essential tasks,” Dion said of his fellow F-35C fliers.
The F-35s would drop their JSOWs then turn around. They could refuel and rearm at an island outpost and head back into the fight, or fly all the way back to the carrier.
How far could an F-35C travel on a deep-strike sortie like this? As part of the work-up for its 2022 deployment, VMFA-314 has been testing the limits. In one July exercise, the squadron flew F-35Cs from Miramar to Washington State—a distance of more than a thousand miles.
Marine KC-130s refueled the fighters in mid-air. V-22s helped set up austere refueling stops on the ground.
A thousand-mile sortie is ambitious. Another exercise VMFA-314 planned, but ultimately canceled owing to scheduling problems, was even more ambitious. That training event would have involved F-35Cs flying a staggering 2,600 miles, one way, from California to Hawaii for a simulated deep strike.
That’s a long mission. As in, six hours of non-stop flying just for the outbound leg. “Bring snacks,” Dion advised.
As part of that exercise, the pilots in theory could have stopped over at a base in Hawaii. In wartime, that’s not an option. That is to say, hitting a target 2,600 miles away might require a fighter to fly 5,200 miles, in total.
A 5,200-mile, round-trip strike mission would require a lot of refueling. Bear in mind that when four Air Force F-16s flew from Japan to the South China Sea back in April, they had support from four KC-135s. One big tanker per fighter for a potentially 3,600-mile round-trip.
F-35Cs conducting their own, 5,200-mile round-trip might need as many tankers … or more. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where, for long-range aerial warfare in the western Pacific, American squadrons—flying from carriers or land bases—would require as many tankers as they have fighters.
That limits how many fighters the Americans can push into a fight over, say, Taiwan. If the Air Force and Marine Corps mobilized every refueling squadron in their respective force structures—an impossible feat—they’d still have just 600 or so tankers.
And it’s a safe assumption that the Chinese air force would target the tankers on the ground or in the air. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force seems specifically to have designed its new J-20 stealth fighter to hunt down American “heavies” such as tankers and surveillance planes.
The Marine Corps is preparing for long-range air strikes. Which is not to say the service has worked out all the procedures and tactics it will need to pull off these deep-strikes while under fire. “There are definitely things to work out,” Dion said.