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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Marine Corps vertical take-off F-35Bs are launching on long-range strike missions from U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships, traveling hundreds of miles to operate above and attack hostile territory from the ocean.

The jets have been taking off from the USS Makin Island in the Arabian Gulf to execute “long-range strike” operations in support of ongoing airstrikes in Operation Inherent Resolve, and also operating from the USS America in the East China Sea. Both of these scenarios further fortify the evolving tactical concept that amphibs, now armed with the F-35B, can project power from the sea in an impactful and decisive fashion previously not possible.

Prior to the arrival of the F-35B, amphibious assault ships operated Harrier jets, Ospreys and helicopters, along with ship-to-shore amphibious vehicles, landing craft and other platforms which, while useful, could not perform the missions an F-35 can. Therefore, the arrival of the F-35 is impacting tactics and concepts of operation (CONOPS) for Navy amphibious assault ships which some see as increasingly taking on a carrier-type of power projection ocean attack role. The deck launched long range strike capabilities of an F-35, coupled with its long-range, drone-like sensors, can perform forward reconnaissance and attack missions simply not possible prior to its arrival. As part of this equation, the F-35 can also provide close air support for Marine Corps Expeditionary units conducting ship-to-shore amphibious assault in ways that change operational tactics.

All of this of course introduces the question of whether amphibs or “amphib-like” light carriers could be a wave of the future because they can move more quickly, be more agile and present a less vulnerable target to well-known long-range anti-ship missiles described as “carrier killers.” There is much debate when it comes to the extent to which Chinese DF-26 anti-ship missiles, able to launch precision strikes at ranges out to 2,000 miles could destroy, disable or simply stop carriers from operating in ranges necessary for air strikes, yet is also seems clear that smaller, lighter and potentially faster platforms able to project long-range strike power from the sea might be less vulnerable than large carriers.

Many maintain that carriers are going nowhere soon, yet there are numerous ongoing Navy studies looking into the question as to whether future aircraft carriers should be engineered with new configurations better able to survive the fast-evolving current threat environment, while still retaining the ability to launch massive attacks from the ocean. Long-range strike missions for the F-35B, launched from amphibious assault ships, figure prominently as part of this equation, to be sure. Perhaps using F-35B-armed amphibious assault ships can offer a bridge into a future where new smaller, faster, lighter aircraft carrier configurations are able to accomplish the crucial power-projection mission at lower risk? Certainly, these ongoing long-range strike missions suggest that amphibious assault ships can function in this capacity, and they can carry a sufficient number of F-35s. The USS America, for example, has completed deploymentswith as many as thirteen operational F-35s.

Also, the F-35 stealth fighter’s European footprint is expanding rapidly as new planes continue to arrive, security patrol missions increase, and new F-35 partners join the growing list of countries acquiring the fifth-generation stealth jet.

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Poland’s future fleet of F-35s will be stationed at Lask Air Base in central Poland, a Lockheed statement said, a development expected to strengthen efforts to deter Russia by expanding the mission proximity envelope across strategically vital areas of Eastern Europe within striking range of Russia. Theater Security Package patrols including F-35s, some of which have taken place in sensitive locations around the globe such as the Pacific, could uptick in the European theater in the region of the Baltics, Baltic Sea and other areas along the Russian border.

Poland solidified its purchase of thirty-two F-35As in January of last year, becoming the 10th North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member to operate the jets. Dispersed geographical locations in terms of basing and operational reach, coupled with the growing numbers of F-35s themselves, introduce new interoperability and deterrence dynamics into the European continent. For many years, NATO countries have often struggled to successfully interoperate with one another due to a lack of compatibility with technical standards, protocols or communications technologies otherwise able to link Air Force jets from different countries together. The F-35 however, operates with a well-known Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL) enabling fast, secure, two-way information sharing among F-35, in effect making it possible for F-35s from one NATO country to seamlessly operate with another.

This possibility takes on new significance with the arrival of Polish F-35s for a number of reasons. Norwegian F-35s, for example, are slated to start air-policing missions over Iceland in coming weeks, a move likely to expand NATO’s Northern security reach closer to the highly contested Arctic. Bordering the Baltic Sea, Poland is close to Norway and could easily conduct joint patrols along the geographically crucial region. MADL connectivity between F-35s, along with promising efforts to securely and more effectively connect F-22s to F-35s and network fourth-generation to fifth-generation fighters, can massively expand a protective security “web” across Europe in a way that has never been possible. MADL functionality is detailed in a 2018 Lockheed Martin essay titled “F-35 Mission Systems Design, Development, and Verification.”

“Designed for 5th Generation aircraft, MADL provides fusion-quality data on all air and surface tracks to other members of the flight group. These data include the track state, track covariance, identification features, and passive RF data,” the essay writes.

The F-35 MADL network even extends into Southern Europe as the Italian Navy is now certifying its F-35Bs as “ready for operations,” once Italy’s ITS Cavour completes its F-35B exercises at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn Editor-in-Chief Warrior Maven571.316.9098

Image: Lockheed Martin