US Marine Corps F-35B pilots aboard the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, took off with externally stored missiles in the Philippine Sea, which suggests they trained for all-out aerial combat with China.
The move came just days after China deployed its DF-26 missiles that experts say can take down US aircraft carriers from thousands of miles away.
The Wasp regularly patrols the western Pacific and became the first ship to host combat-ready F-35s, the first-ever carrier-launched stealth jets. The F-35B is a short-landing and short-take-off version of the aircraft designed for Marine pilots.
An F-35B Lightning II makes the first vertical landing on a flight deck at sea aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Seaman Natasha R. Chalk)
Because of the F-35’s stealth design, it usually stores weapons in an internal bay to preserve its radar-evading shape.
So when the F-35 flies with weapons outside the bay, it’s flying in what Lockheed Martin calls “beast mode.”
The F-35 holds only four air-to-air missiles on combat-focused air missions, and just two when it splits the mission between air-to-ground and air-to-air.
But with weapons pylons attached, Lockheed Martin has pitched the F-35 as an all-out bomb truck with 18,000 pounds’ worth of bombs and missiles in and under the wings.
While the F-35 has never actually tested this extensive loadout, the F-35Bs aboard the Wasp in January 2019 took off with two weapons pylons and at least one dummy air-to-air missile.
A fully loaded F-35A.
Other pictures of the F-35s on the Wasp showed guided bombs being loaded up into the jets.
Flying with dummy missiles and pylons under the wings trains F-35 pilots on how the aircraft handles under increased strain, and demonstrates what it’s like to have a deeper magazine in combat scenarios.
Lockheed Martin previously told Business Insider that F-35s are meant to fly in stealth mode on the first day of a war when the jets need to sneak behind enemy defenses and take out surface-to-air missiles.
After the initial salvos, F-35s can throw stealth to the wind and load up on missiles and bombs, Lockheed Martin said.
“When we don’t necessarily need to be stealthy, we can carry up to 18,000 pounds of bombs,” Jeff Babione, general manager of the F-35 program, told Business Insider in 2017.
Marines load a Captive Air Training Missile (CATM) 9X onto an F-35B Lightning II aircraft.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Galbreath)
China is seeking air-to-air dominance
But the theoretical implications of the F-35’s loadout take on a new importance in the Pacific, where China has increasingly sought to impose its will on international waters.
China has increasingly threatened US ships in the region, with one admiral even calling for the sinking of US aircraft carriers.
China has responded to US stealth fighters with a stealth jet of its own, the J-20, a long-range platform with the stated goal of winning air superiority.
But experts recently told Business Insider that the J-20, as designed, would likely lose in air-to-air combat to almost any US or European air superiority fighter.
While the US may be able to contain China’s air power for now, Beijing recently deployed “carrier-killer” missiles to the country’s northwest. The US, in its recent Missile Defense Review, suggested F-35s could shoot down these missiles in flight.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.