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'There's Nothing Like It': US Marine Corps Commits to Keeping F-35, But Cuts Not Off Table

Sputnik News

19:03 GMT 02.04.2020

While US Marine Corps (USMC) leaders have indicated the service is considering shedding some of its F-35 stealth fighter fleet, the Corps' top officer said on Wednesday that the jet is too valuable for the service to discard completely.

US Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger indicated last week that drastic changes would be coming to the service in the coming months as he weighs how the USMC fits into the Pentagon's strategic shift toward "inter-state strategic competition" with Russia and especially China. While he noted that some of the F-35B Lightning II aircraft could be lost in the restructuring, he was careful to reassure reporters - and the jet's maker, Lockheed Martin - that the jump-jet will continue to have a place in the Marine Corps.

"Right now, the program of record plows ahead as it is," Berger told reporters at a Wednesday roundtable, according to Defense News.

"But I'm signaling to the industry, we have to be prepared to adjust as the operating environment adjusts," he said. "Right now, the program of record stays the same, but we will - we must - adapt to the adversary and we must adapt to the operating environment that we're challenged with being in."
'Not Optimized for Great Competition'

When Berger took over the Corps last summer, he immediately set to work reimagining the future structure of the service based on the demands laid out by the Pentagon the year prior. The February 2018 National Defense Strategy indicated a strategic shift away from the War on Terror and toward "inter-state strategic competition" with Russia and China, particularly a future conflict in the South China Sea.

The USMC is "not optimized for great competition. It is not optimized to support a naval campaign." Berger told lawmakers last October, saying it was time to "throw out old assumptions and start fresh."

Berger said last week the Corps was too big, and Marine Corps Combat Development Command spokesperson Maj. Joshua Benson gave USNI News a glimpse of what a rebuilt Marine Corps would look like by 2030.

Benson described a shift in focus from land combat toward naval operations, and a corresponding elimination of all of the USMC's tank units as well as most of its artillery units, and even some air units, including helicopter and V-22 Osprey tiltrotor squadrons. He also noted that some of the Corps' F-35Bs, which are the vertical takeoff and landing version, could also be cut, and that squadrons of the stealthy jump jet would shrink from 16 aircraft to 10.
'Nothing Like It'

On Wednesday, Berger told reporters the F-35 isn't going anywhere, though.

"There's nothing like it," Berger said. Aside from the former Soviet Union's now-retired Yak-38 and the Harrier family of jets used by the Marines, British Royal Navy and Indian Navy, the F-35B is the only fixed-wing aircraft capable of taking off and landing vertically. This gives it unequaled utility, as it doesn't require airfields from which to operate.

In addition, the stealthy F-35 is an unprecedented weapon of intelligence-gathering, vacuuming up tons of electromagnetic data on enemy radars, communications, and other electronic equipment.

"We may over time learn that 10 is the wrong number, it could be 11, it could be 12, I don't know. But right now the target is good at 10," Berger said of the proposed F-35 squadron sizes, according to USNI News. "We know how to employ the aircraft in a contested environment, but some of it depends on factors we don't control – in other words, this is an airframe, a capability on the front end of its delivery."

"The maintenance track record of this aircraft, we'll just learn over time. If the maintenance readiness of the F-35 proves to be very, very strong, then of course, just like any other system, you need less of them because more of them are up all the time. On the other hand, if it turns out not to be so, then you're going to need more of them to account for the ones that are in repair, that are down right now," he said.

However, the commandant noted that his judgments, which could come down in the next few months, would also be based on an external review.

"I'm confident in the target that we're at right now and the aim point that we have to go to 10 per squadron. But if an external assessment, if future wargames, if we learn more about the maintenance track record of the F-35, if that causes us to change the PAA, the number of aircraft in a squadron, we should absolutely be willing to do that," he said.

According to the most recent Marine Corps Aviation Plan, the USMC is slated to buy 353 F-35Bs in addition to 67 F-35Cs, which are specialized for aircraft carrier operations.


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