Yuma opens first JSF Marine squadron

Marine Corps stands up the first operational Joint Strike Fighter squadron among the services despite continued problems with the program.

The Marine Corps will stand up its first operational Joint Strike Fighter squadron Tuesday at the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., in a major Marine aviation milestone.

The first F-35B Joint Strike Fighter arrived in February with 15 more slated to arrive through 2013. Marine aviation officials will officially stand up Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 in a ceremony Tuesday.

It marks the beginning of the JSF era in the Marine Corps as the service begins to fade out its legacy aircraft. The Joint Strike Fighter was designed as a combo platter of F/A-18, Prowler and Growler capabilities. Over the life of the F-35 program, Marine leaders expect it to replace all three to some degree.

Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos has said he’s seen progress in a program that has faced severe scrutiny over missed deadlines and a growing bottom line. Amos, a career aviator, said in 2011 he would keep a close eye on the Joint Strike Fighter declaring that the services needed to reclaim major programs like the F-35.

In August, he said he has stepped back his monitoring of the program.

“Last year I felt like I had to be more hands on, and on things like decisions in regards to if there is any trade space here in how the airplane is being developed,” Amos said. “Are there any decisions I can make right now which will ease the burden on the airplane as it’s going through.”

Tuesday’s ceremony will set the latest milestone toward that progress and the Marine Corps’ long term relationship with the F-35. The Marine pilots for the new squadron will come from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where the Navy, Marines and Air Force are training their pilots on the joint program.

All three services have selected some of the most elite and most experienced pilots to fly the F-35. With so few Joint Strike Fighters in service, though, the pilots there complete much of their training in flight simulators. The same training regimen will occur at Yuma as the fighters trickle in.

The Joint Strike Fighter has continued to take heat from Capitol Hill as the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a letter critizing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for rushing testing on the F-35B, the version flown by the Marine Corps. The F-35B is the more advanced jet considering it must land and take off from an aircraft carrier.

The senators issued the letter in February citing problems discovered with the “F-35B’s structure and propulsion.” Those concerns have not subsided, but it has not stopped the Marine Corps from taking the lead in standing up their squadron — the first service to open an operational squadron.

Development problems persist within the acquisition program for the Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon has still not finished a contract for the JSF’s fifth production lot with Lockheed Martin. Pentagon leaders have tried to roll back some of the comments made by the new F-35 acquisition chief in respect to the military’s F-35 relationship with Lockheed, but Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan has stood by them.

It will be telling to see how fast the F-35s arrive at Yuma and how soon the Marine pilots stationed there can start flying them.