F-35Bs embarked with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, have recently just entered the U.S. Central Command area of operations for the first time.

According to a photo uploaded by the Marine Corps showing the F-35B, the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship Essex entered the 5th fleet area of operations. The U.S. 5th Fleet is responsible for the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and parts of the Indian Ocean, and is a component command of CENTCOM.

The 13th MEU’s entrance into the CENTCOM arena heralds the first time the F-35B has entered the volatile Middle East arena and puts the high-tech aircraft closer to the fight against possible ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, or as a counter to sophisticated Russian and Syrian air defense systems in Syria.

But the 13th MEU’s F-35s are not going to be dropping ordnance on targets in the Middle East just yet.

The 13th MEU is slated to kick of a two-week Theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal, or TACR, off the coast of Djibouti on Sept. 8, according to a command release.

About 4,500 Marines and sailors will participate in the maritime exercise that will include simulated air defense training, mine countermeasure training, quick-reaction force drills, deck landing qualifications, and at-sea ship interdictions, according to a command release.

“TACR allows us to demonstrate the enhanced capabilities and tactical lethality that embarked F-35Bs on an ARG bring to the region,” Col. Chandler Nelms, the 13th MEU commander, said in a commander release.

Marines assigned to the MEU recently just wrapped up the 24th iteration of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercise in Malaysia and a theatre security cooperation training evolution in Sri Lanka.

But not everything has been smooth sailing for the MEU.

On August 9, Cpl. Jonathan Currier was reported overboard from the Essex off the coast of the Philippines, which set of a massive five-day international search and rescue effort. The corporal was never found and later pronounced dead by 13th MEU officials.

The deployment of the F-35B aboard the 13th MEU is also the first time the F-35 has been deployed on ship from the continental United States.

Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.

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