Why the F-35B is the right fighter to break the Chinese A2/AD barrier

The F-35 stealth fighter, particularly its vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) “B” variant operated by the US Marine Corps (USMC), is becoming the central element of its flight-jumping role. Island in the fight against China within its anti-access barrier/area of ​​denial (A2/AD).

The F-35B’s integration into the US Navy’s Expeditionary Forward Operating Base (EABO) concepts and the US Marine Corps Forces 2030 design was recently revealed by an image showing the stealth fighter operating vertically from a forward base in open terrain while under the watchful eye of a pair of Stinger MANPAD missile guards.

Monday’s tweet carried an image dated May 2022 of a USMC F-35B in an open field, protected by a two-man Stinger MANPAD team. The same month, on May 27, a US Marine Corps F-35B was shown leaving an Advanced Weapons and Refueling Point at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona.

It had an AIM-9X air-to-air training missile and six GBU-12 bombs (four on the wings and two in the weapons bay).

On April 25 of that year, the Marine Test and Operational Evaluation Squadron used an F-35B in what they called a “risk reduction endeavor” at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.

The US Marine Corps tweeted that flight clearance operation were evaluated for landings and short takeoffs on prepared and semi-prepared surfaces as part of its attempt to reduce risk.

During that year, in June, an F-35B from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) trained in “rolling vertical landing” and “operations from difficult situations.”

The exercises are part of the USMC’s island-hopping tactic of small, agile, hard-to-detect Marines armed with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles on friendly islands in the South China Sea (SCS), aimed at combating China within his Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) bubble.

Why the F-35B is the right fighter to break the Chinese A2/AD barrier
British Navy F-35B stealth fighter.

Fighting China inside the A2/AD bubble

The plan, part of the USMC’s Force 2030 design and the US Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept, includes air and naval components that would operate in conjunction with Marine units on these islands.

Logistics is one of the perennial challenges the US military has tried to overcome, as discussed in multiple previous EurAsian Times reviews.

The vast distances between the First and Second Island Chain and the area of ​​operations in the SCS and the East China Sea (ECS) make it incredibly difficult and risky for US warships and island-based Marines to resupply with fuel, food, and firepower while China can continue to fight comfortably from the home front.

But on December 8 of last year, the plan began to crystallize when two F-35Bs from the USMC Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1) landed at Camp Pendleton in southern California.

“The F-35s did not land on the base’s mountainous 2,000-meter runway. Instead, they did so at the smaller and much more austere Helicopter Outlying Field (HOLF),” a report from The Drive read.

Challenges in operating the F-35B from austere environments

VMX-1 named the Obsidian test Iceberg. The distributed operations concept exploits the F-35 B’s vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capability by making it operate from remote locations with little logistical support and no runways.

The goal was to train Marine ground, maintenance, logistics, and communications units to integrate and expose them to operating from those environments. For example, using the F-35’s data link with Marine ground elements and the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to prepare for any maintenance, repair, spare parts, fuel, and weaponry the aircraft might require.

Why the F-35B is the right fighter to break the Chinese A2/AD barrier
A British Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning

Another challenge is doing this in a contested space with an adversary as electronically advanced as China, which can intercept radio communications and jam or use them to locate units.

An F-35B, with a combat radius of no more than 650 miles, has to communicate its complex needs with ground and logistics personnel in the shortest possible time, in an environment of near radio silence, and land vertically on base. 

Then refuel, rearm, and possibly repair quickly before enemy fire rains down. The experiment focused on refining these training tactics and procedures.

But munitions, unlike fuel, can’t be transferred to planes while they’re airborne; this is where the EABO differs from the Advanced Arming and Replenishment Point (FARP). “Unlike the traditional forward armament and resupply point (FARP), the EABO can be set up and taken down quickly, as it is sometimes within the enemy’s combat zone,” explains the Drive.

But the challenge for the Marines was to perfect the landing procedures in the field on the eastern Pacific coast, in California, at Camp Pendleton, where the tests were taking place.

With the Obsidian Fury, the Marines got clearance for the F-35B to land on 53-foot-wide roads, as that would be the realistically available surface area on islands in the western Pacific. The ultimate challenge was avoiding foreign object damage (FOD) when operating the F-35Bs in such rudimentary and austere environments.

For this reason, in the exercise carried out at Yuma Proving Grounds, a FARP scenario was mentioned, and a Stinger Man-Portable Air Defense (MANPAD) equipment was shown, which the Marines are preparing for a miniaturized version of airfield defense.

Considering that USN and USMC planners are also considering “lightning carriers,” in which Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) carry multiple F-35s, rather than the larger supercarriers, the F-35 is emerging as the “spearhead” of the possible US war against China.

Why the F-35B is the right fighter to break the Chinese A2/AD barrier
F-35B stealth fighter.

F-35s and Marine units are not a panacea.

However, the USN and USMC plan is not foolproof and is far from a decisive advantage against China’s A2/AD bubble. The 2019 Marine Aviation Plan specifies that the EABO is a “coercive but not (an) escalation” tool.

This means that aside from simply conveying to the PLA that the US has options to complicate and harass its military exercises, it is far from being able to push back a Chinese navy and take the fight to the mainland.

In a purely military and tactical scenario, the Chinese have many options to detect hidden Marine units on these islands eventually. It has the largest and most diverse inventory of armed and unarmed drones, a competent network of satellites (for the most accurate targeting information), and a diverse battery of possibly tens of thousands of surface-attack missiles to finish off. Finding and definitively destroying the Marine Littoral Regiments (MLR).

The Northern Theater Command (NTC), the Eastern Theater Command (ETC, which deals with Taiwan), and the Southern Theater Command (STC) have sufficient air and naval resources to deal with the Marine units on the islands from Okinawa or Yonaguni.

The fight against the MLR will not even come close to diminishing the resources of any of these commands. It would be naive to expect that the PLA did not have a tactical and operational plan to deal with the MLR.

They have missiles, drones, special forces, amphibious ships and tanks, and electronic warfare capabilities to destroy MLRs; its own highly advanced regular naval and air force to take down F-35s, V-22 Ospreys or CH-53Ks and; the largest navy in the world, combined with a vast civilian naval militia and maritime unmanned surface vessels (USVs) under development to attack the US Navy logistics vessels that would feed the MLR.

It depends on which element you choose to destroy and at what point in a possible confrontation between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan.

Via: Eurasian Times