Initial operational capability (IOC) for the Lockheed Martin F-35C is expected to come early next year as the Navy stands up its first fleet-deployable squadron. To prepare for initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) trials, pilots from the two fleet replenishment (training) squadrons—VFA-101 “Grim Reapers” from Eglin AFB, Florida, and VFA-125 “Rough Raiders” from NAS Lemoore, California—undertook an at-sea carrier-qualification deployment aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in March, during which 140 arrested recoveries, or “traps,” were accomplished.
During the “carqual” deployment in the Atlantic, the wing-folding capability of the F-35C was put to the test in an air wing environment. The ALIS (automatic logistics information system) offboard fleet management system was also tested.
IOC for the F-35C will be declared when the first deployable squadron with a full complement of 10 aircraft reaches mission readiness. The objective date for IOC was August this year, with a “threshold” date of February 2019. There have been a number of technical issues to overcome, such as a “green glow” reported by pilots in the helmet display during night landings, and problems with oscillations during catapult launches. Alterations to cure the latter were tested during the recent “carqual” deployment, while software changes have helped ease the “green glow” phenomenon. A new helmet is due to be delivered to the fleet from early next year. Another fix being implemented this year is the strengthening of the wingtips of the first 32 F-35Cs so that they can fire the AIM-9X air-to-air missile from the outer underwing pylons.
In the meantime, personnel from the Navy’s first deployable F-35C squadron have begun training on the type with VFA-125 at Lemoore. VFA-147 “Argonauts” flew their last mission in the F/A-18E Super Hornet after they returned from a six-month deployment in December. Training for the F-35C began at both Eglin and Lemoore, with flying now being undertaken at the California base.
VFA-147 is expected to be declared “ready” for operation in October, flying a mix of new F-35Cs from the factory and some aircraft taken over from VFA-125. Work-ups within the carrier air wing will ensue, leading to a scheduled first carrier deployment aboard the USS Carl Vinson in 2021, although that date could be brought forward.
Lemoore received its first F-35Cs in January 2017 to equip VFA-125. Original plans called for VFA-101 to move in from Eglin AFB, but it was decided to stand up a new “schoolhouse” to serve the West Coast F-35C community. Under current plans Lemoore will be home to VFA-125 and the first seven deployable F-35C squadrons. Which units follow in the footsteps of VFA-147 have yet to be announced. Plans for the East Coast fleet have not been revealed, although VFA-101 remains at Eglin to train personnel. By the early 2030s the Navy plans to have 20 operational F-35C squadrons.
In the meantime, the U.S. Marine Corps is preparing to receive its first F-35Cs in late 2019. The service is acquiring 80 of the carrier version to operate with five squadrons as part of Navy carrier air wings. VMFA-314 “Black Knights” at MCAS Miramar is slated to be the first squadron to get the “CV” version of the Joint Strike Fighter.