Marine Corps May Not Have Enough Pilots for its F-35 Fleet, Top General Warns

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Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 2nd Class James Spencer signals the pilot of an F-35B Lightning II aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 on the flight deck aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Molina)
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 2nd Class James Spencer signals the pilot of an F-35B Lightning II aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 on the flight deck aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Molina)

The U.S. Marine Corps may not have enough pilots to sustain future F-35 Joint Strike Fighter units amid expected future budget shortfalls, its top general warned in a new report.

In a 10-year force outlook plan, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said the service will require a new study into how many F-35 squadrons it can support as it prepares to make other cuts across the force.

"I am not convinced that we have a clear understanding yet of F-35 capacity requirements for the future force," Berger said in the recently released report, titled "Force Design 2030." The news was first reported by Breaking Defense.

"As a result, the service will seek at least one external assessment of our Aviation Plan relative to [National Defense Strategy] objectives and evolving naval and joint warfighting concepts," he added.

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The F-35 has proven costly to maintain, and the Marine Corps, like other services, has contended with shortages in the fighter community.

"Our continued pilot shortfalls are a factor we must consider and either scale programs of record accordingly or implement a sustainable, affordable solution," Berger said. "Other services face similar shortfalls. This issue has recruiting, training, and retention factors -- as well as fiscal and industrial base factors -- that we must consider in reconciling the growing disparity between numbers of platforms and numbers of aircrew."

Berger noted that it has been particularly difficult to develop an experienced F-35 pilot cadre.

"Our continued inability to build and sustain an adequate inventory of F-35 pilots leads me to conclude that we must be pragmatic regarding our ability to support the existing program of record," he said.

A spokesman for the Marine Corps said that as of March, the service was 800 pilots short of its goal of 4,000 for all aircraft types. The service was unable to provide how many F-35 pilots it was specifically short, given the "consistent fluctuation" of pilots moving within the pipeline, the spokesman said. 

The Marine Corps has been on an ambitious journey over the last five years to integrate the F-35 into its operations.

The service has plans to procure 420 total F-35s -- 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs -- in an effort to replace the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet and EA-6B Prowler over the next decade. The Navy and the Marine Corps have been moving to centralize their Joint Strike Fighter operations out west along the Pacific coast.

The Marine Corps recently accepted its first F-35C Joint Strike Fighter jet, which can fly off aircraft carriers and make longer-range flights.

While the service has since 2015 operated the F-35 "B" variant -- which can take off and land vertically on amphibious assault ships -- the "C" variant was only introduced into its inventory for carrier operations at Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 in California in January.

The Marine Corps has had significant stealth fighter milestones, often ahead of its Air Force and Navy counterparts: It was the first service to reach initial operating capability or IOC, declaring its F-35B short take-off and vertical landing variant ready for combat in 2015. In 2018, the F-35B made its combat debut, conducting its first strike in Afghanistan. Additionally, the F-35B first deployed aboard the Wasp with the Pacific-based 31st MEU in March 2018, marking the first maritime operational deployment for the aircraft.

Earlier this year, Berger told audiences at the annual Surface Navy Association conference that as part of preparations to face China in a potential near-peer conflict, the Navy and Marine Corps can't send warships out that look the same every time, and should adopt more methods of unpredictability.

That could mean loading an amphibious assault ship with F-35s on one deployment -- what officials have called the "lightning carrier" concept -- and sending the next ship out full of MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, followed by a mix of the two.

"We need to constantly pose this adversary with different looks," Berger said.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional data from the Marine Corps.

-- Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

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

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