The Marine Corps' First Carrier-Capable F-35 Squadron Is Ready for Combat

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Marine Corps F-35C Lightning IIs at Miramar.
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 declares their initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35C Lightning II. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Juan Anaya)

The Marine Corps' first F-35C carrier-variant Joint Strike Fighter squadron has officially been declared ready for combat.

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, said its F-35Cs have achieved initial operational capability, or IOC, authorizing the aircraft for worldwide carrier deployment operations, according to a service release.

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"The F-35 is an expeditionary platform that extends the reach of our Marines and machines, and increases our ability to support joint and allied partners at a moment's notice," Maj. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing commanding general, said in a statement.

"By effectively employing the F-35, [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] commanders have the potential to dominate our adversaries in a joint battlespace, in the air and out at sea."

Officials said a number of standards had to be met before an aircraft reached IOC, including a minimum number of Marines trained to fly and support the stealth fighter.

The squadron's first F-35C arrived in January; officials in March said at the time that VMFA-314, known as the "Black Knights," had achieved its "safe for flight" milestone, bringing the unit one step closer to deployment. Officials did not respond to questions about how many F-35Cs the squadron has now.

The Marine Corps has been first to reach a number of F-35 milestones. Its F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant was first to achieve IOC in 2015, ahead of Navy and Air Force counterparts.

In 2018, the F-35B made its combat debut, conducting its first strike in Afghanistan. The F-35B first deployed aboard the USS Wasp with the Pacific-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in March 2018, marking the first maritime operational deployment for the aircraft.

The Air Force's F-35A achieved IOC in 2016. The Navy's Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147 "Argonauts" out of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, reached IOC last year following carrier qualifications aboard the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. VFA-147 -- the service's first operational F-35C squadron -- is scheduled to conduct its first deployment aboard the Vinson in 2021.

Of the three Joint Strike Fighter variants, the Lockheed Martin-made F-35C can carry the most internal fuel -- nearly 20,000 pounds -- which allows for longer range. It can also refuel in-flight, which "allows the Navy to operate its carriers a safe distance from the threat while its fighters reach remote targets," according to the defense company.

"The F-35C's unique capabilities, compared to the F-35B and legacy aircraft, provide the Marine Corps with a complementary increase in combat projection and the ability to operate from the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers," said Lt. Col. Duncan French, VMFA-314 executive officer, in the release.

French credited the Marines' latest success to the consistent maintenance that kept the C-variant ready to fly.

"In addition to accepting and inspecting the multiple aircraft that arrived throughout the year, the Marines maintained a high level of aircraft readiness," he said. "Those mission-capable aircraft allowed the pilots to train in the appropriate missions required of IOC [and] contributed towards the readiness metrics of IOC."

VMFA-314 is also a squadron of historical firsts: It was the first squadron in the Navy Department to fly the F/A-18 Hornet jet in the 1980s.

Additionally, the squadron was the first to transition to the F-4B Phantom ground-attack aircraft in 1961; and the "Black Knights" were the first members of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing to transition to jet aircraft in 1952 and fly the F-9F Panther.

"The successful transition of the Black Knights to the F-35C culminating in this IOC declaration is a testament to the squadron's distinguished legacy of pioneering new aircraft," said Lt. Col. Brendan Walsh, VMFA-314 commanding officer.

-- Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: Marine Corps May Not Have Enough Pilots for its F-35 Fleet, Top General Warns

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