The Marine Corps F-35B Short-Take-Off-and-Vertical-Landing Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter took off from a Navy amphibious assault ship for the first time with a full load of weapons -- in preparation for its planned deployment in 2018.
The aircraft flew from the Navy's first America-Class Amphibious Assault Ship, the USS America, to Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., where it dropped live precision guided weapons on mock targets in the desert.
The F-35B dropped laser-guided GBU 12s and satellite-guided GBU 32s as part of the exercise; the ordance team aboard the USS America assembled 72-GBU 12s and 40-GBU 32s aboar the ship, Marine Corps officials said.
"Laser-guided bomb (LGB) kits consist of a computer control group and air foil group normally attached to a general-purpose bomb to form an LGB. The dual mode, laser-guided kit enhances existing LGB kits by adding GPS/inertial navigation system capabilities," a Navy statement from Chief Petty Officer John Scorza said a few months ago.
Bomb assembly aboard the ship includes integrating the bomb body and warhead with the stabilzing fins and computer controls. Reports from the ship say the ordnance team quickly improved the speed of their bomb assembly operation.
With the bombs built by America, the test pilots from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron1 from Edwards Air Force Base, California, conducted successful live-weapons tests for two consecutive days by dropping six GBU-12s on a live-weapons range in Yuma, Arizona, Scorza writes. (Full Marine Corps, Navy statement HERE)
The bomb-dropping exercises with the F-35B is seen as a critical part of the aircraft's development, as the F-35 multi-role fighter is designed for land attack missions as well as amphibious assault support, ISR and air-to-air engagements.
All of this took place as part of Developmental Testing III wherein the F-35B underwent envelope expansion via a series of launches and recoveries in various operating conditions such as high sea states and winds, Capt. Sarah Burns, Marine Corps spokeswoman, told Scout Warrior in November.
Twelve F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1), two MV-22B Ospreys, one UH-1Y Venom and one AH-1Z Viper are participating. Prior to this, the most F-35Bs aboard a ship was six.
DT-III was also the first time an operational F-35B took off with the latest Block 3F software at sea, and involved the first qualification of a British Royal Navy F-35B.
F-35B Will Change Tactics and Procedures on Amphibs
Part of the challenge to F-35B integration is recognizing how its technologies will change concepts of operations, tactics and procedures; the F-35B is a very different aircraft than the Harrier jets it is replacing, Navy officials said.
Harrier jets, which also have the ability to conduct vertical take-off-and-landings, are multi-role jets primarily designed for light attack missions – such as quickly flying over land locations where Marines are forward deployed and providing close air support.
While the F-35B can perform these missions as well, the new Joint Strike Fighter brings a wide range of new sensors, weaponry and aviation technology to the Corps.
These F-35B sensors, which include a Distributed Aperture System placing cameras around the aircraft to provide a 360-degree purview as well as Electro-Optical Targeting Systems; these sensors, among others, will allow the F-35B to perform ISR missions as well as strike and ground support.
The C5I (command, control, communications, computers, collaboration) requirements for the F-35B will be very different than how the Navy operated the Harrier.
Navy officials also said the service is upgrading the seeker on various ship defensive systems such as the Rolling Air Frame missile and NATO Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile to an active seeker.
USS Tripoli - F-35B Modifications
The Navy is getting ready to launch its now more than 56-percent complete second next-generation America-Class Amphibious Assault ship with specific built-in modifications designed to accommodate the emerging Marine Corps variant of the Joint Strike Fighter - the F-35B.
The future USS Tripoli will formally launch sometime next year, Navy officials told Scout Warrior last year.
The Tripoli, now called LHA 7, is a follow on ship to the USS America - the first in a fleet of planned new America-Class amphib; the Tripoli is slated to deliver in 2019.
The super modules have been integrated, service developers said.
After delivery of LHA 6 (USS America), a group of changes to the ship’s flight deck structure and equipment were necessary to accommodate the Joint Strike Fighter F-35B aircraft.
"These improvements are being incorporated into the basic build of LHA 7, which is expected to yield a better overall technical solution at reduced cost. Additionally, the LHA 7 design will incorporate the Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services and will address fact-of-life and obsolescence instances identified throughout construction of LHA 6 and LHA 7," a Navy official said.
Thus far, the Navy and Marine Corps have made progress with a series of extensive preparations on board amphibious assault ships in order to ensure that their flight decks, sensors and weapons systems can accommodate the first ever deployment of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter slated for 2018.
The Marine Corps short-take-off-and-landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, could be the first ever fifth-generation aircraft in the world to deploy when they serve on board several amphibs in 2018, Marine Corps and Navy leaders told Scout Warrior.
The technological modifications are already complete on the USS Wasp, an operational Navy amphib; they are also operational aboard the USS America while also being built into the USS Tripoli, Navy officials said.
Navy engineers and shipbuilders have recently done extensive work on board the USS America, the lead ship in a series of 11 planned America-class big-deck amphibs. The USS America, or LHA 6, was commissioned by the Navy October of 2014 and has completed a trail period known as “post-shakedown availability” and gone on missions to South America to connect with key allies. The ship is slated for full operational deployment with the F-35B in the future.
The USS America underwent a series of intense modifications in order to ensure that the weapons and sensors and synchronized with the Joint Strike Fighter and that flight deck can withstand the heat of the F-35B vertical take-offs-and-landings.
Navy engineers are installing a new heat-resistant thermally sprayed non-skid, which is designed to prevent long-term heat damage to the flight deck and underlying structure, adding intercostal structural members below landing spots seven and nine. This reduces stress on flight deck, and integrating the flight deck with support equipment, sensors and weapons.
“With the added structure, these two landing spots will provide the capability to perform closely timed cyclic flight operations with the F-35B without overstressing the flight deck,” a Navy official said.
Also, some of the modifications may involve re-adjusting some of the ship’s antennas in order to allow for a clear flight path for the JSF.
Once operational on Navy amphibs, the F-35B will conduct a wide range of missions to include support for amphibious ship-to-shore operations, ground operations, close-air support and what’s called “suppression of enemy air defenses,” Burns said.
At the same time, the advanced sensor suite and computers on the Joint Strike Fighter will allow for a greater range of missions compared to traditional fighter jets, Burns explained.
“The F-35B will also be used as a C2 (Command and Control), limited offensive and defensive counter air, air interdiction, assault support escort and armed reconnaissance,” she added.
Some of these sensors include the F-35s Distributed Aperture System, which places 360-degrees worth of cameras around the aircraft, and a high tech targeting sensor called EOTS, or Electro-Optical Targeting System. The aircraft’s computers also allow for something called “sensor fusion,” a technology which integrates information from a host of different sensors on-board a single screen for pilots to view.
Sensors, combat systems, radars and weaponry on board amphibs are also being upgraded to better integrate with the F-35.
America-Class Amphibious Assault Ships
Much of the effort with the USS America is going inside the ship and dropping lighting and ventilation and piping wiring and everything down far enough so new material can be installed and welded in place, senior Navy officials said.
"The America class is intended to operate for sustained periods in transit and operations in an Amphibious Objective Area to include embarking, transporting, controlling, inserting, sustaining and extracting elements of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force and supporting forces by helicopters and tilt rotors supported by Joint Strike Fighters F-35B," a Navy official added.
Overall, the USS Tripoli will be 844-feet long and 106-feet wide and have a weight of more than 44,000 tons. A fuel-efficient gas turbine propulsion system will bring the ship’s speed up to more than 20 knots, a Huntington Ingalls statement said.
The ship will be able to carry a crew of 1,204 and 1,871 troops, meaning the ship is being engineered to carry a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the statement added.
America class ships are outfitted with a group of technologies called a Ship Self Defense System. This includes two Rolling Aircraft Missile RIM-116 Mk 49 launchers; two Raytheon 20mm Phalanx CIWS mounts; and seven twin .50 cal. machine guns, Navy officials said.
Unlike previous amphibious assault ships, the first two America-class big deck amphibs are being built without a well deck in order to optimize the platform for aviation assets such as the MV-22 Osprey and F-35B. The ship is configured with more deck and hangar space for aircraft and is designed to maximize the technological advantages provided by the F-35B and Osprey.
One of these strategic advantages, among other things, is described as vertical maneuver – the ability to use the range and speed of the Osprey to forward project mobile units deep into hostile territory possibly behind enemy lines, Navy and Marine Corps units have described.
The third America-class amphib, called LHA 8, will feature the return of the well deck.
Advance Procurement funds for the third America-class ship, LHA 8, were competitively awarded to Ingalls Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), in June 2016, service officialsexplained. The Construction portion of the contract will be awarded in 2017.
"Using Advance Procurement funds, HII has commenced planning as well as initiated the process to procure long lead time materials," and HII statement explained.