The Marines also currently operate the VTOL AV-8B Harrier II, but this successful icon of Marine Corps aviation is now in its golden years; relatively soon, the aging Jump Jet will be completely put out to pasture and stood down. So what’s the latest on the Semper Fi JSF? The Marines have been working diligently, now utilizing the F-35B Lightning II in action within theaters of operation. The program is a spiral development system, so aircraft upgrades and capabilities are ongoing as the F-35 matures and forges ahead to the right along the timeline. The F-35B has now seen combat in Afghanistan and has deployed on Marine Expeditionary Units aboard assault ships in support of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) scheme.
A Fully Fledged Weapons Delivery Platform
The typical new-aircraft teething process has pretty much ended now, and significant strides have been made in making the aircraft more reliable than ever. Although the F-35 had some delays and cost overruns, this fifth generation aircraft comes equipped with robust state-of-the-art capabilities and a plethora of bells and whistles that are typically omitted from various reports.
Standard Marine Corps F-35B fleet squadrons are slated to have 16 aircraft each, but with distributions being made to other units and with some jets sent to their manufacturers for modifications, most squadrons will stabilize with 10 aircraft for now. Long term, they will build back up to 16 F-35Bs, which is the planned allotment for the first several F-35B squadrons. It is a fluid situation as airframe requirement needs vary.
The aircraft is equipped with a Pratt and Whitney F135-PW-600 41,000 pound thrust afterburning turbofan engine (based on the F-22’s F119 engine), propelling the 7.0 G-rated F-35B up to speeds of 1.6 Mach. The -600 engine version is B-model specific, as it’s equipped with a shaft-driven lift fan model and thrust-vectoring nozzle, allowing the jet to hover with ease. The engine has been very reliable and has excellent throttle response. Originally, an alternate engine and manufacturer had been explored, but that never came to fruition due to budget constraints. The F-35B has a combat radius of 450 nm, being farther than both the AV-8B and F-16.
The aircraft is equipped with impressively capable AN/APG-81 AESA radar. Compared to the Harrier and Hornet, this new multi-mode radar has a farther scan, is non-dynamic, and much more reliable. The aircraft can share with other TACAIR assets using Link 16 and the Multi-function Advanced Data Link.
The AAQ-40 Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) is an internally mounted sensor suite and resides just behind and below the radome. The external sensor is in a small low-observable tinted glass cage. The system combines Forward-Looking InfraRed (FLIR) and InfraRed Search and Track (IRST) functionality. It has an air-to-surface/air-to-air FLIR tracker, air-to-air IRST modes, and a spot tracker. This negates the need for an externally carried LITENING pod (as the AV-8B carries) and allows the F-35 to operate both stealthily and autonomously using precision-guided munitions. As time progresses, additional capabilities will be added to the EOTS.
The cockpit features a whopping 32-inch touch-screen panoramic display, giving the pilot exceptional situational awareness. The plethora of F-35B sensors relay and prioritize data, allowing pilots to take advantage of the very large high-definition display with the most pertinent information. The information is delivered in a logical and precise manner, intuitively and greatly reducing task saturation. There is a side stick controller on the right and a HOTAS throttle on the left. The helmet display allows pilots to see what they are targeting, and they can display the Distributed Aperture System and night vision into the helmet. It uses an IR light spectrum for nighttime and it is better than Night Vision Goggles, so the pilots are more lethal than ever.
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