The Marine Corps now has its first F-35B squadron on the East Coast that has achieved initial operational capability.
That is one of many steps in the Corps’ pursuit of a fully fielded and operational F-35 fleet of aircraft by 2030.
Initial operational capability means that Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, VMFA 542, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, has enough operational F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, pilots, maintainers and equipment to self-sustain its missions, according to a Marine press release.
Those include close air support, electronic attacks, offensive anti-air warfare and strike coordination and reconnaissance for the fifth-generation fighter.
“I am extremely proud of the Marines and Sailors of VMFA-542,” said Col. James T. Bardo, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 14 ― the unit’s parent command. “Achieving initial operational capability at the pace and precision of which they did truly demonstrates what an exceptional unit this is. This milestone demonstrates their hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance.”
Though the process of building up the Cherry Point, North Carolina, squadron began in December 2022, the unit didn’t receive its first F-35B until May 2023, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
When the unit reaches fully operational capability, it will contain six squadrons with 10 planes per squadron. But that number could increase, depending on future mission requirements, basing and funding.
The F-35B was first declared an operational aircraft by the Marine Corps in 2015, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
At the time, the Corps planned to purchase 340 F-35B models and 80 F-35C models. The F-35B is a short-takeoff-and-vertical landing variant of the aircraft. The F-35C is a long-range jet.
Those numbers shifted slightly as of the 2022 Marine Corps Aviation Plan, which listed a procurement goal of 353 F-35B and 67 F-35C for a total of 420 aircraft at a rate of roughly 20 per year.
Those aircraft will eventually fill out a planned 18 active component squadrons across the Corps.
In July 2021, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, VMFA 314, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Air Wing at Miramar, California, reached full operational capability with its F-35C, the first to do so among all the military branches.
The squadron deployed aboard ship in 2022, supporting all 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and West Coast MEU deployments.
Iwakuni, Japan-based F-35 squadrons are expected to reorganize as the primary aircraft support for that area of responsibility this year.
Marine Corps Times recently reported the final class of AV-8B Harrier II mechanics completed training in late January. The final two Harrier pilots are scheduled to finish training in 2024.
The Harrier is one of two jets that the F-35 is replacing. It is slated to fly until 2027.
The other aircraft is the F/A-18 Hornet, which is expected to fly until 2030, when all F-35s are expected to be operational.
The Corps shut down the dedicated Hornet training squadron in 2023: Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101. Ongoing Hornet training will take place within Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, according to a release.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.