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USMC begins first operational overseas deployment of F-35B

11 January 2017
An F-35B from VMFA 121, 3rd MAW, refuels in-flight while transiting the Pacific from MCAS Yuma, Arizona, to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on 9 January, with its final destination of Iwakuni, Japan. VMFA 121 is the first operational F-35B squadron assigned to the Fleet Marine Force, with its relocation to 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Iwakuni. Source: US DOD

The US Marine Corps (USMC) has started relocating Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft to Japan for the type's first overseas deployment, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced on 10 January.

An undisclosed number of jets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) departed Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma in Arizona bound for MCAS Iwakuni in Japan the day before the announcement. They transited via Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska.

The transition of VMFA 121 from MCAS Yuma to MCAS Iwakuni marks a significant milestone in the F-35B programme for the USMC, and comes six months after initial operating capability (IOC) for the type was declared in July 2015.

VMFA 121 became the service's first operational F-35B squadron in November 2012, when it traded in its Boeing F/A-18 Hornets for the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. In December 2015, the unit participated in Exercise 'Steel Knight', which was a live-fire wargame that integrated air and ground elements in a wide range of military operations in an austere environment. This was done to prepare the 1st Marine Division for deployment as the ground combat element of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), and saw the F-35B perform "exceedingly well", according to the marines.

With VMFA 121 now operationally deploying the F-35B overseas for the first time, the USMC will conduct the first operational maritime deployments aboard its amphibious assault ships in 2018.

In December, the UK confirmed that USMC F-35Bs will join those fielded by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force aboard the maiden deployment of the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in 2021.

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