Two squadrons of stealthy F-35Bs have deployed aboard the amphibious assault ships USS Wasp and USS Essex, joining the Marines' 31st and 13th expeditionary units, officials told the Marine Corps Times in late December. The Marine expeditionary units are deployed in the Pacific and Central Command theaters.
While the US is "crushing the life" out of Daesh, "the war is not over" in Iraq and Syria, US Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters December 29. "The caliphate is on the run, we're breaking them," the retired USMC general-turned-cabinet-member said, noting that field commanders needed to stay in the Middle East to prevent an "ISIS 2.0" group from reforming, as he called it.
The F-35B variant designed with short-takeoff and vertical lift capabilities can take off from the USMC's amphibious assault ships, akin to the helicopter carriers common in other navies. Squadrons of F-35Bs were marshalled to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in January 2017, where they have participated in training exercises.
The F-35B first reached operational capability in July 2015. Like the AV-8B Harrier or a helicopter, the aircraft can perform "jump" takeoffs and landings.
The US Marines have nine amphibious assault ships in their fleet. Introducing F-35Bs into amphibious assault ship operations marks an important step in the service's goal to phase out F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-6B Prowlers and AV-8B Harriers by 2032. The corps plans to buy 353 F-35Bs to replace the existing fleet.
Japan and South Korea have suddenly gained interest in the F-35B as well, to counter both China's and North Korea's continuing buildup of their military capabilities.