Marines Shift F-35 Deployment Plans

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The US Marine Corps is changing the way it plans to use its Lockheed Martin F-35B short take-off, vertical landing fighters, we report here (subscription required). Briefly, the new concept of operations envisages the use of mobile forward arming and refueling points (M-Farps) to support groups of F-35Bs, which would return to U.S. Navy amphbious warfare ships, allied carriers (special mention to the British Queen Elizabeth class) or even regional land bases for routine maintenance.

The new Conops addresses problems with earlier plans, which envisaged conducting sustained combat operations from both LHA/LHD-class ships and forward operating bases (FOBs) on land. Any naval force operating within 150 nm of a hostile coast would be within range of an increasing number of lethal and elusive ground-mobile guided missile systems, and would be hard put to avoid tracking by small unmanned air vehicles. That would make it very vulnerable, absent support from a carrier with its long-range airborne early warning coverage - and one of the major arguments for the F-35B is that it provides air power independent of the big carrier. The new Conops allows the ships to stand off outside coastal missile range because they support operations rather than launching airstrikes. 

Meanwhile, large FOBs on land were considered by some (including deputy defense secretary Bob Work, in his days as deputy Navy secretary) as being vulnerable to guided missiles and rockets. The idea of the new Conops is to blunt this threat by making M-Farps much smaller and more nimble than FOBs (because most aircraft maintenance happens elsewhere). They will relocate every 24-48 hours, which is estimated to be inside an enemy's targeting cycle.

However, the new Conops looks remarkably like the way that the Royal Air Force planned to operate Harriers in the last few years of the Cold War. After experiencing great difficulty in operating Harriers in the often-soggy North German countryside, the RAF dispatched survey teams in civilian clothes, who covertly looked for sites that would provide parking, cover and storage for equipment and people, and a length of road long enough for STOVL operations. The actual war locations or Warlocs were highly secret and never used for training. (More details in this fascinating history, document 35A.)

Lt Gen John Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, unveiled the new Conops at a conference in London. That meeting was followed by reports that Marine F-35Bs could be filling deck spots on the carrier Queen Elizabeth while the UK builds up its own force, suggesting that the Marines are already working to get the U.K. onboard with its plans. Davis also addressed some of the detail concerns: although some M-Farps could be resupplied with weapons by vertical lift, either surface transport or KC-130Js would be needed to deliver fuel. 

The M-Farp concept would also be stressed in any kind of hybrid war scenario where the adversary has insurgent forces or sympathizers in the area where the forward bases are located. That could make the targeting cycle much shorter or expose the F-35s to direct threat from manportable air defense systems - particularly on landing, any Stovl jet is a hot and non-maneuverable target. It would also complicate resupply by land. Whether the new Marine Conops will work better than the RAF's old Warlocs remains to be seen.

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