Combat Debut: Marines' F-35B Strikes Taliban Target in Afghanistan

An  F-35B Lightning II launches from the flight deck of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) during a deployment of Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Freeman)
An F-35B Lightning II launches from the flight deck of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) during a deployment of Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Freeman)

The U.S. Marine Corps' F-35B Joint Strike Fighter made its combat debut this week, conducting its first strike in Afghanistan, a U.S. defense official confirmed to Military.com on Thursday.

The B-variant of the stealth fighter flew Sept. 27 from the amphibious assault ship Essex, which was last known to be operating in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen, as of Sept. 23. CNN first reported the strike operation.

Marines and sailors with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit readied the munitions and conducted flight deck operations in support of the fighter's first combat strike, the Navy said in a release Thursday.

The target was a "fixed Taliban" location, according to CNN. Neither the number of aircraft nor the type of munitions used in the strike were disclosed. Requests to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the Essex were not returned by press time.

In May, officials announced that the F-35 had made its combat debut in the Middle East after Israel's variant conducted strikes earlier this year. Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said that the Israeli F-35 aircraft, known as Adir, had "attacked twice in the Middle East using the F-35."

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"We are the first in the world to do so," Norkin said at the time, without disclosing the exact date the strikes took place.

In March, the Lockheed Martin-made F-35B deployed for the first time aboard a Navy Amphibious Ready Group for operational exercises in the Pacific, a historic milestone for the jet. The Essex is part of the second deployment including F-35Bs, which departed Norfolk, Virginia, in July, bound for the Middle East.

The Marine Corps first forward-based a squadron of F-35Bs to Iwakuni, Japan, in 2017, which later flew alongside B-1B Lancer bombers and Japanese and South Korean F-15 fighters in a show of force to North Korea that August.

The F-35B was the first of the U.S. military’s three F-35 variants to reach initial operational capability milestone in 2015.

This week's strike follows a similar operation in November in which a pair of U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fifth-generation jets took out a Taliban drug lab.

On Nov. 19, 2017, the F-22s conducted a ground-attack mission to pummel suspected drug labs in Afghanistan with small-diameter bombs. Some criticized the use of the high-end fighter for the role, but ground commanders and Air Force counterparts applauded the move at the time.

Since then, leaders such as Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the Raptor's use in such a mission was not justified. "We should not be using an F-22 to destroy a narcotics factory," she said in June, echoing previous statements she had made on the topic.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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