As China builds out its network of militarized islands in the South China Sea and expands a sphere of influence designed to keep the US out, the US Marine Corps is putting the finishing touches on a weapon to burst its bubble: the F-35B.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has turned out a massive number of so-called carrier-killer missiles, ballistic missiles that can target ships up to about 800 miles out at sea,even testing them against models of US aircraft carriers.
With the US Navy’s longest-range platform – aircraft carriers – maxing out at a range of about 550 miles, this means China could theoretically use the missiles to shut the US out of a battle for the South China Sea.
But theories and lines drawn on paper won’t beat the US military in a battle.
In pursuing the strategy of anti-access/area denial, known as A2AD in military speak, China assumes that the US must launch aircraft from bases or aircraft carriers. But the F-35B, the US Marine Corps’ variant of the most expensive weapons system of all time, doesn’t work that way.
“You can fly the F-35B literally anywhere,” David Berke, a retired US Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, told Business Insider. “If your traditional places of operation are unavailable” – perhaps because Chinese missile fire cratered them, a likely tactic in a war – “the F-35B can be there.”
By taking off in just a few hundred feet or so and landing from a vertical drop, the F-35B frees up the Marine Corps from worrying about large, obvious bases.
If China targets carriers, the US won’t use carriers
Marines have been training for this operating concept in the Pacific as well. In mid-January, they landed an F-35B on a sloped platform, showing that future pilots could land their plane almost anywhere.
Throughout last year, F-35B crews trained on tactics like “hot loading” and “hot refueling,”which aims to turn reloading the F-35 – usually an affair that takes time, space, and a massive air base to support – into the equivalent of a NASCAR pit stop.
For the F-35B, the ground crew runs up to the jet while it’s still running to pump more fuel and load more bombs. In just a few minutes, atop a dirt floor with minimal support infrastructure in an improvised location China’s missiles won’t know to hit, the F-35B can take off again.
“Find me 600 feet of flat surface anywhere in the world, and I can land there,” said Berke, who compared the F-35B to the A-10 “Warthog,” the US Air Force flying gun famous for its ability to land on dirt roads and fight on despite getting roughed up.
So while China has focused on pushing back the US’s aircraft-carrier-bound fleets of F-18s, the Marines have cooked up a new strategy involving smaller carriers, like the USS Wasp, and heavy-lifting, quick-flying helicopters for support. Using the V-22 Osprey’s and the CH-53’s extreme-lifting capability, Marines could set up makeshift bases inside China’s supposed A2AD bubble.
From there, the stealth F-35Bs could take out the threats keeping the carriers at bay, poking holes in that bubble.
“If you’re looking at warfare two-dimensionally, you’re looking at it wrong,” Berke, a former F-35 squadron commander, said of the A2AD concept. “You don’t beat me in a boxing match ’cause your arms are longer than mine.”
The US is sending the F-35B to the Pacific ASAP
The US’s faith in the F-35B’s ability to shake up the balance of power in the Pacific is evident in recent deployments. The first outside the US was in Japan.
Now, amid rising tensions with North Korea, an F-35B-capable aircraft carrier will station itself in Japan.
“You’re about to put for the first time ever fifth-generation fighters on a ship at sea and put it into a highly contested area that is fraught with geopolitical risk and controversy and tensions,” Berke said.
“The implications of a fifth-generation airplane being in [the Pacific] is impossible to overstate,” he added. “They’re going to provide capability that nobody knows exists yet.”