The U.S. Marine Corps is in the process of developing a small fleet of F-35C stealth fighters. These advanced aircraft are being prepared for deployment, where they will carry out long-range strike missions deep within enemy territory in the western Pacific, specifically targeting potential threats from China. The significance of the Marine Corps’ evolving deep-strike capability cannot be overstated. With limited air bases in the China and Philippine Seas region, where the U.S. and its allies operate, the Pentagon is actively seeking new ways to conduct operations in this vast expanse while countering the constant threat posed by China.
To overcome the challenges posed by the extensive distances involved, the Marines are training their pilots to fly F-35Cs on sorties spanning potentially thousands of miles. These missions will require the pilots to navigate through enemy air defenses, engage hostile forces with Joint Standoff Weapon glide-bombs, and successfully return to base.
However, the success of this concept heavily relies on logistics, particularly aerial refueling. During wartime, refueling aircraft become prime targets for enemy long-range fighters.
Major Mark Dion, a member of the Marine Fighter-Attack Squadron 314, is among the first group of USMC pilots being trained for long-range, stealthy strike operations. Dion emphasized the importance of the F-35C’s expeditionary capabilities, which allow for deep-strike operations while carrying larger warheads, including the Joint Standoff Weapon. This capability is a testament to the Marine Corps’ commitment to maintaining a powerful deep-strike capability.
Transitioning to F-35Cs for the Marines
VMFA-314, known as the “Black Knights,” operates from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in Southern California and is the first USMC squadron to transition from older jets, such as the F/A-18A/C, to the F-35C. The Marine Corps plans to convert a total of 22 squadrons to F-35s, with each squadron typically consisting of around 10 aircraft. However, most of these units will fly the F-35B, a variant that is capable of vertical landing but offers less internal space and a heavier build due to the presence of a lift fan.
The F-35C, specifically designed for operations aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, features a larger wing and robust landing gear. These design features enable the F-35C to carry an additional 7,000 pounds of fuel compared to the F-35B, along with larger weapons bays.
While the F-35B’s weapons bays can accommodate 1,000-pound munitions, the F-35C can carry 2,000-pound weapons, including the JSOW glide-bombs. This extended range and enhanced capacity make the F-35C the Marine Corps’ primary aircraft for deep-strike missions. Additionally, the F-35C’s carrier capability allows for seamless integration with carrier air wings. VMFA-314’s first planned deployment, scheduled for the following year, will be with Carrier Air Wing Nine aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Pacific.
The Execution of Deep-Strike Missions
Let’s explore how the deep-strike missions could unfold. Marine F-35Cs would take off from a carrier operating in the relatively safe waters of the eastern Philippine Sea or other distant areas beyond the reach of China’s ground-based missiles.
Equipped with a pair of 70-mile-range JSOWs and a pair of AIM-120 air-to-air missiles in their internal bays, the F-35Cs would fly westward. Aerial tankers, such as Marine KC-130s or U.S. Air Force KC-135s, would refuel the F-35Cs every few hundred miles.
Austere bases on land could also serve as refueling points. The U.S. military has been exploring new concepts for rapidly establishing small outposts within the range of Chinese missiles. While these bases might not be suitable for long-term stays, they could serve as refueling pit-stops for passing fighters.
Supported by aerial tankers and austere bases, the F-35Cs would exploit gaps in Chinese radar coverage to evade the most formidable air defenses. In the event of engagement with Chinese fighters, the F-35s could defend themselves using AIM-120 missiles. Dion emphasized that all F-35C pilots are trained in mission-essential tasks.
Once the F-35Cs have delivered their payload of JSOWs, they would turn around. They could either refuel and rearm at an island outpost to continue the fight or return directly to the carrier.
The question arises: How far can an F-35C travel on a deep-strike mission like this? VMFA-314 has been testing the limits as part of their preparations for the 2022 deployment. In a July exercise, the squadron flew F-35Cs from Miramar to Washington State, covering a distance of over a thousand miles.
During the exercise, the fighters were refueled mid-air by Marine KC-130s, and V-22s were used to establish austere refueling stops on the ground.
While a thousand-mile sortie is ambitious, VMFA-314 had even more ambitious plans for another exercise that had to be canceled due to scheduling issues. The plan was for the F-35Cs to fly a staggering 2,600 miles from California to Hawaii for a simulated deep-strike mission. This would require non-stop flying for approximately six hours on the outbound leg alone. As Dion jokingly advised, “Bring snacks.”
In theory, the pilots could have stopped at a base in Hawaii during this exercise. However, in a wartime scenario, such stopovers would not be possible. Hitting a target 2,600 miles away would entail a total flight distance of 5,200 miles.
A round-trip strike mission covering 5,200 miles would necessitate multiple refueling operations. It’s worth noting that when four Air Force F-16s flew from Japan to the South China Sea in April, they were supported by four KC-135 tankers—equivalent to one tanker per fighter for a round-trip distance of potentially 3,600 miles.
For F-35Cs executing a 5,200-mile round-trip mission, even more tankers would be required. In long-range aerial warfare scenarios in the western Pacific, American squadrons flying from carriers or land bases could potentially need as many tankers as they have fighters.
This limitation imposes constraints on the number of fighters the U.S. can deploy in a conflict, such as one involving Taiwan. Even if the Air Force and Marine Corps mobilized all their refueling squadrons—an impossible feat—they would still have only approximately 600 tankers combined.
Furthermore, it is a reasonable assumption that the Chinese air force would actively target tankers, both on the ground and in the air. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has developed the J-20 stealth fighter with the intention of countering American “heavies,” including tankers and surveillance planes.
Although the Marine Corps is actively preparing for long-range air strikes, there are still many operational procedures and tactics that need to be refined to ensure the success of deep-strike missions conducted under hostile conditions. As Dion acknowledged, there is still work to be done in this regard.