U.S. F-35Bs Make Combat Debut; UK Sea Trials Under Way

 - September 27, 2018, 1:46 PM
An F-35B from VMFA-211 prepares to launch from Essex in the days before the first combat action. It has a 25mm cannon pod installed under the fuselage. (photo: U.S. Navy)

**This article was updated on September 29.**

Lockheed Martin F-35Bs from the U.S. Marine Corps have attacked a Taliban target in a "ground clearance" operation in Afghanistan, according to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Although it was Israel that gave the Lightning II its combat debut over Syria, this latest action represents the first time that U.S. F-35s have released weapons operationally.

The news was largely to be expected, as the assault carrier USS Essex and its F-35Bs recently moved into the Fifth Fleet operational area, having conducted a TACR (theater amphibious combat rehearsal) in the Gulf of Oman that exercised various U.S. Navy and Marine Corps elements training in joint operations.

Essex is the second assault carrier to deploy operationally with the F-35B, embarking the aircraft of VMFA-211 “Avengers.” They are making the first deployment to sea of aircraft fitted with the external 25mm cannon pod. The first vessel to deploy with F-35s, USS Wasp, is currently in the Pacific and was recently denied a shore visit to Hong Kong by China.

In other F-35 news, the Netherlands government is reportedly interested in acquiring more F-35As beyond the 37 it has approved. Reports in Dutch media suggest that the force could rise to 67 aircraft. Meanwhile, Norway has taken delivery of another three aircraft at the Ørland base.

An F-35B from the joint U.S./UK test team takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth on September 28, during the first operations by the type from a non-U.S. vessel. (photo: Royal Navy/Crown Copyright)

Also, sailing on trials off the East Coast of the U.S., the new British carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth began its first test activities with F-35Bs on September 28. The aircraft are being flown by three British pilots and one U.S. Marine, with support from contractors and U.S. military personnel. Following thousands of simulated cycles being flown in the simulator at BAE Systems Warton, recent weeks saw the F-35B pilots engaged in an intensive shore-based campaign of live flying work-up, including ski-jump launches from the deck installation at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, and the use of the SRVL (short rolling vertical landing) technique ahead of the first recoveries and launches at sea.

Royal Navy Commander Nathan Gray and RAF Squadron Leader Andy Edgell were the first pilots to land on Queen Elizabeth, flying aircraft BF-04 and BF-05 from the joint test team.

On the same day the F-35 program suffered its first crash. A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B from the training squadron, VMFAT-501, crashed near its base at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, at around 11.45 am EST. The pilot ejected safely and there were no injuries on the ground.