Unmanned UF-35B Lightning II

by Col L. Ross “Migs” Roberts

It is summer, 2020. Maj “Rump” Snyder relaxed a bit behind the UF-35B “remote crew station” while watching the unmanned Lightning II effordessly make contact with the tanker. He took a long sip of his black coffee, which reminded him that he had to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home tonight. War is hell. The UF-35B he was monitoring was in perfect formation taking on fuel. He thought, “Just 30 more minutes over Somalia and I’ll dick che ‘return to base icon sending this aircraft back to the carrier for rearming and maintenance.”

It was just 8 years ago that he finished joint F-35B pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base. Rump fondly reminisced about his “nugget” tour in Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 332, the first Marine F-35B squadron. When he joined the “Moonlighters” in 2013 there were more jets than pilots. Back in 2010 the almost “shovel ready” F-35 program received a substantial injection of money, which was good news for the Marine Corps. At that time the aging F/A-18 aircraft inventory required significant modifications, and a new ßghter was extremely welcome. By the time Rump arrived at the Moonlighters, the squadron had plenty of flight hours and planes to fly, and fly they did.

The training focus directed by the squadron commander, LtCol “Nomo” Hanchet, was on air superiority, secondary focus was on tactics assodated with the new technology of the F-35. The squadron took great pride at not only holding their own against U.S. Air Force F-22 squadrons, but they also trained in employing the F-35B to its maximum capability in complex high threat training environments. The Air Force RED FLAG exerdses were optimized for this kind of training and during his tour with the Moonlighters the squadron participated in three RED FLAG events.

The remaining “blue collar” squadrons (F/A-18 and AV-8B squadrons) supported Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) training events like the new combined arms exerdses (CAXs) or “CAX IIs” along with the Marine unmanned aircrañ support squadrons (VMUs). Rump heard Nomo say many times that air-to-air skills are much more perishable than air-to-ground skills. “Good fighter pilots are made in the higthy dynamic air-to-air realm, and I don’t want to be a ‘training aide’ for the grunts. ” The F-35B training and readiness (T&R) requirements are vast, and “there just isn’t enough time in the day or flight hours to train to all of the missions delineated in the T&R.” Besides, the “North Koreans are about to move south and the Moonlighters have to be ready for the ‘first day of the war’ missions. ”

Rump found it hard to argue with that logic, particularly since the aviation portion of the CAXII syllabus focused on combined arms and low-altitude, high-threat dose air support (CAS). He heard the blue collar pilots say that all they needed was a target coordinate and time on target; the rest was just boring holes in the sky. The F- 35 didn’t have to go “low” or operate under the cover of suppressive fire combined arms tactics to conduct high-threat CAS. The F-35 exclusively employed global positioning system-guided munitions from standoff ranges at medium to high altitude. Flying in CAX II was like asking far a midair with an unmanned aircraft system (UAS). The farmer F /A-1 8D weapons and sensors officers now manning the VMU squa drons checker blocked the airspace with UASs performing CAS and even acting as airborne forward air controllers (FAC(A)s).

After Rumps fieet tour in 2016 he attended Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS). While at EWS Rump was introduced to modern maneuver warfare theorists like Boyd, Van Crevdd, andCanby, in addition to the seminal works of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, all in the context of a warfighting philosophy based upon maneuver warfare, the Marine Corps concept for the conduct of war. Both a philosophy and method of warfare emphasizing an indepth understanding of commander s intent and mission type orders, maneuver warfare naturally leveraged tactical a viation far success but only if strong air-ground rda tionships existed. He intendy studied Ue wartime experiences of Guderian, Rudel, Patton, and Quesada pioneers in the integration of airpower with maneuver during World War II (WWII). It was ironic that ne Marine Corps was the only Service in the world tha t still practiced the “tactical air force” model perfected in WWII. Yet, through these pioneers writings, he contrasted his experiences as an F-35B pilot and saw himself- a product of F-35 B multimission training – as well equipped but poorly trained far the maneuver warfare now practiced by the MAGTF.

Through interaction with other servicemembers in his seminar, Rump relearned that the Marine Corps culture was indeed unique. Many of his contemporaries from the rotary-wing and F/A-18 andAVSB communities were eager to serve as battalion FACs and as air officers during their careers Not only were mese tours professionally rewarding many Marine pilots considered FAC tours essential for gaining the ground perspective. Yet, despite the fact that the other Services had tactical aviators, Rump learned that very few ever served on ground tours with the infantry The Air Force F-35A pilot in his seminar said that he joined the Air Force to fiy, not to be an air liaison officer with the Army. The Navy and the Army also didn’t send any of thier aviators to ground units as air liaison officers or as FACs. This seemed particularly odd for Navy F/A-18F aircrew qualified as FAC(A)s; they earned FAC qualifications as part of thier FAC(A) syllabus. Given this context he questioned the current institutional emphasis on the F-35B as the sole tactical aviation (TacAir) platform in Marine aviation capable of supporting five of the six functions of Marine aviation as if the Marine Corps would have to “go it alone.”1

As he studied joint warfare he dearly saw that the Marine Corps was missing an opportunity to facus its ever-decreasing TacAir community to specialize more in MAGTF operational art. The Marine Corps model was continuously contrasted by postwar historians with battlefidd failures where ground and aviation integration failed. He read about the success of this careful integration of ground and aviation under a single command during all of the major conflicts fought since a viation became a force on the battlefield. “Well,” he thought, “that’s all water under the bridge now, ” as he snapped back to the task at hand Rump subconsciously rubbed the leather patch on his flight suit as he dicked the “disengage” icon and then dicked the “IP (initial point) Delta” icon sending the UF-35B back to the CAS stack.

There is no doubt the F-35 B as a function of joint Service priorities and procurement economies will be the most advanced and capable multimission TacAir platform Marine aviation has ever procured. But just because the F-35 can do it all, doesn’t mean the Marine F-35 B pilot should. As part of a naval and joint team, Marine F-35 B squadrons should focus their training specifically in support of the MAGTF and rely upon the Navy and Air Force to maintain the multimission capabilities of the F-35. Our challenge is to train the Marine pilot to employ the F-35 B in a way that transcends his ability to land it vertically.

The MAGTF model is unique and envied. As the F- 35 enters service, Marine Corps leadership has set a high bar for the single-seat F-35 B pilot – more missions, fewer squadrons, fewer aircrew.2 So, as we embark upon achieving this lofty goal the challenge is do we train Marine F-35 B pilots to be “jacks” of all missions supporting five of the six functions of Marine aviation, or do we reinforce our core process of cross-pollination with F-35B training focused on Marine air-ground integration core competencies? The purpose of this article is to argue for the latter and deliberately tailor a Marine F- 35B pilot’s training to specific MAGTF missions within the context of limited funds and time available and cede other core skill missions to F- 35 squadrons of the naval and joint force.

For those of you who have served “combat time” in the Pentagon you may be thinking, “Migs, that’s not the way things work inside the beltway; what you are proposing won’t sell on Capitol Hill.” So with this admittedly Pollyannaish preamble, I want to express an operator’s perspective on what should be marketed on Capitol Hill as the future of Marine TacAir as it is transitioned to the F-35B.

Over the past 25 years Marine aviation has necked down from about 30 squadrons of largely single-mission Vietnam-era aircraft, such as F-4s, RF-4s, A-4s, A-6Es, AV-8As, OV-10s, and EA-6Bs, to 19 squadrons of multimission aircraft (F/A-18s, AV-8Bs) and 4 squadrons of the single-mission EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft. By approximately 2024 Marine TacAir will consist of about 21 squadrons of a single type/model/series aircraft, the F-35B (short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant) or possibly some yet to be defined mix of F-35Bs and F-35Cs (carrier variant), in addition to more unmanned aerial support squadrons.3 Concurrently we’ve seen the emergence of joint warfare and unified action that has nearly eliminated the Service-sector approach to warfare (except perhaps in the Pentagon). The challenge for Marine aviation given this environment will be training the Marine F-35B pilot in an aircraft now being advertised as uniquely capable of performing five of the six functions of Marine aviation. This “remarkable breadth of employment allowing the Marine Corps to decrease its TacAir inventory” into a potentially all-STOVL force and “revolutionize air warfare and Naval Aviation into the 21st Century” has placed an “all in bet” on the F-35B redefining the very relevance of Marine TacAir.4

For the sake of argument, let’s as- sume that the Marine Corps’ vision concerning the value of the F-35B meets expectations and revolutionizes air warfare and naval aviation so much so that, by the year 2020, the F-35B STOVL variant is now the most widely produced fighter of the three variants and is procured by all three Services and our coalition partners. This pres- ents an interesting dilemma for the Marine Corps. The STOVL argument alone may not be sufficient to stand up against the ever-present pressure to re- duce seemingly redundant TacAir ca- pability within the Department of Defense, particularly in light of future reductions in defense spending. Using the multirole F/A-18 experience as a template for the future, training an F-35B pilot to be competent in the “remarkable breadth” of missions (de- spite the advanced fusion of sensors, mission systems, and advanced simulators) will dilute the “Marine” that makes the F-35B worthy of carrying the banner for Marine TacAir. Therefore, basing the very future of Marine TacAir on the F-35B without the proper context of why it’s a requirement for the MAGTF to have a Marine in the cockpit in the first place is placing the cart before the horse.

The culture of cross-pollination between air and ground is what makes the MAGTF unique across the spectrum of warfare. Therefore, at a minimum, it is of utmost importance to clearly and unequivocally state that, first, the Marine pilot is the guarantor of the relevance of Marine TacAir. And second, the platform is simply the means by which he does his “Marine pilot stuff.” Preserving and perhaps even enhancing the Marine F-35B pilot’s reason for existence should be first and foremost when defining the future relevance of Marine TacAir as we transition to the exponentially more capable F-35B. The T&R manual of a Marine F-35B pilot should be the foundation for leveraging the institutional cross-pollination that is the sole source of his unique contribution to the warfighting functions of the MAGTF. Just as the Marine Corps saw the strength in the justification for an F-35 variant with the hardware to support our unique operating environment (F-35B), it should also recognize the validity to operate the F-35 B in a joint environment in a way that leverages the unique nature of the Marine pilot from the first lieutenant to the colonel group commander.

To do otherwise would negate the deliberate career length cultivation of Marine TacAir pilots. Hard choices regarding F-35 B pilot training must be made in the context of limited funds and time available The primary factors we should use in those choices are Marine mission skills that reinforce our cultural ethos and training as MAGTF officers instead of aviators trained in the “breadth of employment” of the F-35 B. As evidenced by Marine F/A-18 squadrons, F-35 B squadrons will struggle with the “Marine generalist or Marine specialist” training dilemma.

The Multimission Marine Pilot: What’s Past Is Prologue

The Marine Corps will be engaged in conflict for the foreseeable future. When engaged across the spectrum of conflict, the Marine Corps will be part of a joint force flying fewer TacAir fighters than we have today. As evidenced during Operation DESERT STORM (ODS) and especially Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF), Marine aviators operating throughout the depth of the Marine expeditionary force battlespace heavily employed armed reconnaissance and strike coordination and reconnaissance tactics – missions F/A-18 pilots rarely trained to before the conflicts. As a result, flight leads and wingmen well trained in antiair warfare perfected armed reconnaissance and strike coordination and reconnaissance mostly through on-the-job training. Marine aircrews fortunately leveraged their unique MAGTF culture and operated as extensions of Marine FACs and air officers connecting Marines in the command and control (C^sup 2^) centers to coordinate and control a tremendous amount of “unbriefed” joint air to support Marine ground forces, all in accordance with commanders intent. As OIF progressed, Marine F/A-18 squadrons returning to the United States were faced with a training dilemma. Do we focus our training for the inevitable deployment to Iraq, or do we revert to pre-war training and expend limited resources and time to train in accordance with the broad mission sets as delineated in the F/A-18 T&R manual?

The accomplishments of Marine TacAir in ODS and OIF offer a glimpse of what may be in store for multimission aircraft like the F-35B. In both conflicts the multimission F/A-18 and single-mission AV-8B performed the large preponderance of Marine TacAir support for the maneuver commander. F /A- 18D aircrews qualified as FAC (A) s were a much smaller subgroup of Marine aircrews uniquely trained and deliberately scheduled throughout a 24-hour period to help control and coordinate Marine TacAir and a tremendous amount of joint TacAir in support of commander’s intent. Compared to single-seat F/A-18 and AV-8B squadrons, the training requirements to earn FAC(A) qualifications – a core mission essential task list (METL) for the F/A-18D – came at the expense of aircrew proficiency for other missions. Since OIF I the single-seat F/A-18 and the AV- 8B squadrons now train to single-seat FAC(A) missions and are faced with the same dilemma of balancing core capability in critical MAGTF support missions like FAC(A) with maintaining capability in antiair warfare missions. Therefore, as Marine TacAir necks down to a single TacAir platform flown by fewer squadrons, training should maximize Marine machine interface to leverage joint “unbriefed” air to support the MAGTF.

The F-35B Pilot: Marine TacAir Specialist

Only the Marine Corps, through its purposely designed culture of integration and dependence upon its aviation arm, can redefine the training of Marine aviators to better leverage aerial forces in cooperation with ground forces. The size of the Marine TacAir force when compared to the Navy and Air Force can be a combat multiplier if not diluted with requirements to maintain on-par skills in missions not directly supporting ground maneuver. Just as the joint process yielded unique Service variants of the F-35, the current joint warfighting environment, as evidenced in the examples cited above, allows for specialization of the Marine pilot.

The leadership of the Navy and the Marine Corps should move forward under a combined strategy that links Marine and Navy aviation under a mu- tually enabling naval aviation vision built upon a deliberate alliance that be- comes closer under budgetary pressure not wider. Leveraging the F-35B/C joint acquisition experience, its time to mandate more specific and mutually dependent functions for the Navy and the Marine aviator. Within this con- struct the Navy and Marine Corps should construct the “functions of naval aviation” and then delineate sub- functions for Navy aviation and Marine aviation that encompass opera- tions at sea, on land, and combinations of the two. Each Services air arm should be given the lead in aviation functions directly related to its Service culture, similar to a supported-support- ing relationship. Once this is agreed to, the Services can write T&R documents delineating the training necessary for Marine and Navy aviators to support those functions. The end product should be a Navy F-35C T&R broadly focused but with specific and defined roles to maintain maritime and air su- periority, and a Marine F-35B T&R that is focused on air supporting ground maneuver. The combined Navy and Marine T&R should reflect the ability for the naval force to operate from both carrier and amphibious shipping as well as expeditionary airfields while delineating specific and deliberate reliance upon individual Service expertise that leverages Service culture.

To illustrate this concept, the Navy would be named the supported Service for antiair warfare and therefore responsible to maintain leadership in air-to-air and air defense tactics development and proficiency. The Marine Corps would be supported in offensive air support in MAGTF operations and therefore responsible to maintain leadership in tactics and proficiency. This would enable Marine pilots to achieve and maintain mastery in missions, such as CAS and deep air support (FAC(A)), armed reconnaissance, strike coordination and reconnaissance, airborne tactical air control, and to train the pilot to leverage the F-35B in supporting maneuver warfare. Core METLs for Marine F-35B squadrons would be focused on creating an aerial force completely at ease with operating with ground commander’s intent as if it were their own on the first day of the war. Training to the supporting roles or noncore METLs of each Service would require fewer sorties in those areas but also provide a “surge” capability if an overweight in a mission area was required. For example, a six plane F-35B detachment operating from an expeditionary strike group would be a force multiplier in helping the carrier strike group establish maritime supremacy yet be the catalyst in employing airpower from a carrier strike group in accordance with ground commander’s intent once forces move ashore.

Once this supported-supporting Navy-Marine Corps employment architecture is in place, Marine aviators can focus on enhancing Marine TacAir’s support to facilitate maneuver and thereby avoid the MAGTF on-the-job training that occurred in ODS and OIF. Through the adoption of a more focused Marine F-35B T&R manual, Marine squadrons could train more pilots earlier in their tours to become organic airborne partners with ground forces, not just additional TacAir pilots who service a target on time. The importance of the armed reconnaissance, strike coordination and reconnaissance, FAC(A), and tactical aircraft controller (airborne) missions as functions of maneuver warfare needs to be heavily emphasized during Marine TacAir training. Marine TacAir’s ability to conduct coordinated and well-planned and executed reconnaissance missions is based upon training the Marine pilot to know what to look for and why and is often not emphasized in today’s F/A-18 squadrons due to other multimission training priorities. This capability is a distinct benefit to our ground forces engaged in the less distinct or “hybrid challenges” characterizing today’s conflict. The additional trust engendered by this training focus, combined with the interoperable network capability of the F- 35B with other Service variants, has the potential to flatten C^sup 2^ further increasing Marine TacAir’s contribution to maneuver in ways yet to be discovered.

The current joint C^sup 2^ system for CAS is useful for processing “unbriefed air,” but the control measures slow the speed and tempo and by design reduce initiative. Marine C^sup 2^ operating as a subset of joint C^sup 2^ is unique and has the potential to better support maneuver warfare and irregular warfare. Yet trends indicate that Marine air C^sup 2^ is migrating to a more centralized electronic joint format that doesn’t leverage Marine aviators in ways commensurate with their experience real-time in the airspace over the batdefield. For example, Marine air group and squadron commanders rarely function as “commanders” airborne and often fly as flight leads and even as wingman on missions that junior pilots can perform. Conversely, young pilots are conditioned to answer the CAS mission with a bomb on time on target; their thoughts and observations are not part of the normal combined arms training process. The networking capability combined with the “flying sensor” qualities of the F-35 could equate to information overload to maneuver forces if not leavened by pilot perspective operating with commander’s intent, or worse, further disaggregate the F-35B pilot or the more seasoned squadron commander from the “fog and friction” and tempt commanders to remain in the operations center.

If approached correctly the F-35B may pave the way for airborne warfare qualifications for Marine TacAir commanders operating within the joint environment from irregular warfare to major combat operations underpinned by the maneuver warfare warfighting philosophy. In this role commanders could leverage the advanced mission systems and networking capability of the F-35 B to operate as more than just mere extensions of the tactical air operations center and direct air support center. Perhaps they could finally be a part of the Marine air C^sup 2^ system airborne, over the battlefield, fusing ground commanders intent with their years of aviation expertise acting as airborne commanders. This layered approach to aviation C^sup 2^ would increase the tempo of Marine air C^sup 2^ and form the basis for a pilot training model that reinforces initiative and thinking in a fluid environment and in the more static irregular warfare environment. Manned Marine TacAir limbered by the advanced capability of the F-35 B and a MAGTF training vision will thrive in both environments.


The acquisition of the F-35B mandates a review of Marine aviation doctrine to ensure that the aircraft best supports Marine Corps warfighting doctrine through the maximization of the most important sensor in the aircraft, the Marine pilot. This is a temporal shift away from the ever-present problem of managing the impact of CAS frags on maintaining pilot core competency in other missions. Flying with ground commanders intent in support of maneuver is warfare art borne in our Marine culture and only honed through specific pilot training. Perhaps this is the only airborne mission that cannot be replaced by a UAS. When the F-35 B is branded with “Marines” on its fuselage, it must mean more than vertical landing.


1. Marine aviation is task organized to support the MAGTF as the aviation combat element by providing six functions: assault support, antiaircraft warfare, offensive air support, electronic warfare, control of aircraft and missiles, and aerial reconnaissance.

2. Transition to the F-35 will eliminate F/A-18D weapons and sensor officers and EA-6B electronic countermeasures officers. Additionally, the Marine Corps will see an aggregate decrease in TacAir inventory.

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, United States Marine Corps Concepts and Prcgrams, Washington, DC, 2008, p. 145.

4. Ibid.