A recently launched Pentagon review comparing F-35C carrier-variant Joint Strike Fighters with F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets will involve Marine Corps aviators and aircraft, the Corps’ deputy commandant of aviation said Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said the review, commissioned by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Jan. 26, would study the two aircraft “apples to apples” to determine whether the 4th-generation Super Hornet can fill the shoes of the brand-new F-35C.
“Really, it is — looking across the mission sets — does a Block 3 Super Hornet match up, compare to an F-35C,” Davis said. “It’s for the carrier air wing of the future.”
The Marine Corps, Davis said, has already purchased 10 of the 67 F-35Cs it planned to buy and has six on the flightline at Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 in Beaufort, South Carolina.
While the Navy is planning to purchase most of the F-35Cs, with a strategy to buy 260, the Corps has gone ahead of the other services to hit a number of F-35 milestones. Its F-35B jump jet variant was the first to reach initial operational capability in July 2015, and it was the first to forward base a squadron overseas in January.
Davis noted that the Marine Corps owns a significant portion of the program’s institutional wisdom as well.
“I probably have the most experienced F-35 pilots in the department of the Navy on my staff right now,” he said.
Mattis’ directive, aimed at finding ways to shave cost off the infamously expensive Joint Strike Fighter program, dictates that the review assess the extent that improvements can be made to the Super Hornet “in order to provide a competitive, cost-effective fighter aircraft alternative.”
Davis said that F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin and Super Hornet maker Boeing would have opportunities to make their case for the aircraft.
However, he said, he expects the study to validate the need to have the technologically advanced F-35C deployed aboard carriers in the future.
“I think it will be a good study, and my sense is we’ll probably have validated the imperative to have a 5th-generation aircraft out there on our nation’s bow,” he said.
If F-35Cs are taken out of the picture as a result of the review, attrition rates of the 4th-generation Super Hornet may become an issue, Davis said, suggesting such a move would limit the aircraft’s ability to deploy in some situations.
“We’re not going backward in time, we’re going forward in time,” he said. “The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, we’re deployed, naval and expeditionary, and we want to make sure our Marines and our sailors have the very best gear in case something bad happens. And that’s 5th-generation airplanes.”