The U.S. Marine Corps expects in October to begin converting a second Japan-based squadron to new F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters.
That’s good news and bad. Good because the two-seat F/A-18D Hornets that Marine All-Weather Fighter-Attack Squadron 242 currently flies are old, tired and lacking in radar-evading qualities.
Bad because F/A-18s are the Marines’ main aerial ship-killers. And the F-35Bs can’t yet match that capability. This in a region teeming with Chinese warships.
The two-seat F/A-18D is an oddity. While the U.S. Navy flew D-model Hornets as training jets, the Marines assign them combat roles. Especially forward-air-control and reconnaissance—missions that benefit from a second pair of eyes in the cockpit.
Armed with pairs of Harpoon anti-ship missiles, the three-decade-old F/A-18Ds also hunt ships. That mission steadily has become more important as the Chinese navy modernizes and adds powerful new vessels such as the aircraft carriers Liaoning and Shandong.
The Marines keep two fighter squadrons at Iwakuni. A third squadron often visits from the United States. They would be the first to fight in the event of war with China. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 with its 16 F-35Bs has flown from Iwakuni since 2017. VMFA(AW)-242’s conversion will boost the base’s arsenal of stealth fighters to 32.
But it also will remove the permanent anti-ship capability from the base’s Marine Air Group 12. The F-35B isn’t compatible with the Harpoon. There is talk of adding the new Long-Range Anti-Ship missile and the smaller, shorter-range Naval Strike Missile to the stealth jump-jet, but that could take years.
It’s not that the F-35B can’t sink ships with its laser- and GPS-guided bombs. But even the Joint Stand-Off Weapon glide-bomb lacks range compared to the sea-skimming Harpoon with its 150-mile reach. And the guidance kits on land-attack weapons usually are less than ideal for targeting ships at sea.
What that means is that, for a few years at least, the Marines in Japan are going to lose much of their aerial anti-ship capability. U.S. Air Force and Navy planes can help fill the gap, as can the Marines’ new island-hopping battalions with their ground-launched anti-ship missiles.
But with the Chinese navy growing more powerful by the year, the Marines undoubtedly will breathe easier if and when their F-35Bs finally get anti-ship missiles.