Navy Announces Plan for First Operational F-35C Squadron

The pilot of an F-35C Lightning II carrier variant, assigned to the “Salty Dogs” of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, receives directions from flight deck crew members aboard aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73). (U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Jonathan)


By Andrea Watters

The Navy plans to deploy its first operational F-35C squadron in 2021 with the aim of enabling future carrier strike groups (CSG) and numbered fleets to engage a wide range of rapidly evolving threats, according to the Navy’s F-35C Fleet Integration Plan released in July.

The future carrier air wing will include two squadrons of F-35Cs and two F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons. The deployment plan is based on an asset allocation study of the most efficient and effective composition of strike fighters, according to Rear Adm. Roy J. Kelley, director, Joint Strike Fighter Fleet Integration Office.

The F-35C’s stealth characteristics—long-range combat identification and advanced capacity for penetrating threat envelopes while fusing information from multiple sources into a coherent picture—will enhance the roles CSGs and numbered fleets play in support of our national interests.

According to Kelley, the F-35C will provide speed, endurance and flexibility the CSG needs to operate autonomously in hostile environments.

“To balance modernization and readiness, the Navy is committed to selecting the right procurement ramp for F-35C to balance strike-fighter inventory management with the cost and time required to field advanced capabilities,” Kelley said.

The Navy’s long-term objective is to form 20 F-35C squadrons by the early 2030s, two squadrons for each of its 10 carrier air wings. The strategy will call for the continued procurement of low-rate, initial-production aircraft and the implementation of the enhanced capabilities of Block 3F software.

In addition, the plan calls for sustaining much of the current force to guarantee mission success against the threats of today and high-end threats of the future.

Deterring the Advancing Threat

Today, near-peer adversaries are advancing technologically and economically at a rapid clip, resulting in the proliferation of highly capable air defense systems, high-performance aircraft and sophisticated information operations that include the following:

  •   Long-range air surveillance radars and airborne early-warning aircraft
  •   Long-range surface-to-air missiles
  •   Highly maneuverable, low-observable adversary aircraft
  •   Jamming and anti-jamming operations against communication, radar and GPS satellites.

If left unchecked, this threat proliferation could constrain the CSG’s ability to project power, Kelley said.

As technologies advance, the future air wing must adapt and increase its capacity to contribute to the sea control mission with both kinetic and non-kinetic operations. The F-35C will be the CSG’s first choice in such contested environments, providing a “day-one” strike capability.

While the day-one capability will allow the F-35C to perform at the “tip of the spear,” its interoperability within the carrier air wing and unique ability to support and augment already fielded legacy platforms will be essential to sustaining the Navy’s combat lethality, Kelley said.

In the near term, legacy aircraft will continue to make up a majority of the carrier air wing, but the information collected by F-35Cs will enhance the effectiveness and survivability of all sea, air and land platforms throughout the battle space.

If the carrier air wings of tomorrow are to outpace the proliferation of rapidly evolving threats, F-35C capabilities must achieve high levels of interoperability with existing ships and aircraft within CSGs and the numbered fleets.

Follow-on modernization for the F-35C program will continue to advance F-35C’s capabilities—weapons integration, electronic warfare and real-time information sharing—to improve the aircraft’s lethality and survivability across all mission sets.

The full integration of these capabilities within the CSG, combined with the F-35C’s ability to distribute this information across multiple platforms within the fleet, is the cornerstone of how the Navy of the future will fight and win, Kelley said.

Andrea Watters is the editor of Naval Aviation News.