The Marine Corps’ first squadron of F-35C Lightning II stealth fighter jets is now fully capable of deploying on board aircraft carriers.

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, also known as the Black Knights, announced initial operational capability for the F-35C variant of the joint strike fighter in a press release on Tuesday, calling the platform “the most advanced stealth fighter jets the world has ever seen.”

VMFA-314, part of Marine Aircraft Group 11 and based out of Miramar, California, received its first F-35C in January. The squadron has spent most of the past year preparing pilots and maintenance personnel to operate, maintain and repair the new jets, which feature significantly upgraded stealth capabilities, avionics and sensors from the legacy F/A-18A-C Hornets the squadron retired earlier in 2020.

Achieving initial operating capability means VMFA-314 has met Headquarters Marine Corps’ standards for the number of trained Marines, mission-ready aircraft and trained pilots for deployment, according to the press release.

“Our maintenance department was critical to the success of IOC,” Lt. Col. Duncan French, the squadron’s executive officer, said in a news release. “In addition to accepting and inspecting the multiple aircraft that arrived throughout the year, the Marines maintained a high level of aircraft readiness. Those mission capable aircraft allowed the pilots to train in the appropriate missions required of IOC, as well as contributed towards the readiness metrics of IOC.”

The new carrier-based jets will enable the Marine Corps to continue deploying strike-capable jets on Navy aircraft carriers to support global combat operations for the foreseeable future.

Until now, the Marine Corps has utilized the F-35B, which offers a short-take-off-and-vertical-landing capability. This variant is designed to take off from short runways and flat-decked amphibious assault ships.

The F-35C is designed explicitly for use on aircraft carriers. Its larger wings and stronger landing gear make it better suited for the catapult launches and arrestments used on carriers, and its wingtips fold for better storage on deck.

The F-35C also holds more fuel than other variants of the single-seat jet, with nearly 20,000 pounds of internal fuel available for long-range flying.

The Navy’s Argonauts of Strike Fighter Squadron 147 achieved initial operating capability with the F-35C in February 2019.

“The successful transition of the Black Knights to the F-35C culminating in this IOC declaration is a testament to the squadron’s distinguished legacy of pioneering new aircraft,” Lt. Col. Brendan Walsh, commanding officer of VMFA-314, said in the news release.

The Black Knights’ legacy includes being the first in the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing to transition to jet aircraft with the introduction of the F9F Panther in 1952.

In 1961, the squadron was the first in the Marine Corps to receive the F-4B Phantom, and in 1982 it was the first unit in the Department of the Navy to fly the F/A-18 Hornet.

French called the unit’s newest achievement a “significant milestone,” saying: “The F-35C’s unique capabilities, compared to the F-35B and legacy aircraft, provide the Marine Corps with a complementary increase in combat projection and the ability to operate from the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers.”

Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he's also in the Army ROTC program.

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