Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.
The first Marine Corps F-35 squadron established to fight from Navy aircraft carriers is officially ready to deploy.
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, known as the “Black Knights,” has achieved initial operational capability (IOC), meaning the squadron of fifth-generation F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters can deploy to carriers for global combat operations, according to a 3rd Marine Air Wing statement Tuesday.
The “Black Knights” are the first Marine Corps F-35C squadron. Until now, the service has been flying F-35Bs, a short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant that achieved IOC in 2015.
The F-35B can fight from airstrips on land and from amphibious assault ships at sea. This variant was the first F-35 to fly into combat, launching from the amphibious assault ship USS Essex to conduct strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2018.
With the addition of the F-35C to the Marine Corps’ arsenal, the service will also be able to fight from Navy aircraft carriers. Lt. Col. Duncan French, executive officer for VMFA-314, said the F-35C provides the Corps “with a complementary increase in combat projection.”
Of the three F-35 fighter variants, the F-35C can carry the most fuel, roughly 20,000 pounds, in internal tanks, giving it greater range to strike distant targets while the aircraft carriers they launch from remain at a safe distance. They can also be refueled in the air as needed.
The C variant also has larger wings and landing gear specifically designed for catapult launches and fly-in arrestments, according to Lockheed Martin, the defense firm that produces the stealth fighter.
VMFA-314, which is based out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California, received the Marine Corps’ first F-35Cs in January. In March, the squadron officially achieved its safe-for-flight operations certification. Now the squadron is ready for combat.
“This achievement ultimately would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the Marines, Sailors, and civilian contractors assigned to VMFA-314,” said Lt. Col. Brendan Walsh, the squadron’s commanding officer.
He added that “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.”
As Military.com reported, VMFA-314 was the first 3rd MAW squadron to fly jet aircraft, specifically the F-9F Panther, in the early 1950s. It was also the first squadron to switch to the F-4B Phantom in the 1960s, and it was the first Department of the Navy squadron to fly the F/A-18 Hornet in the 1980s.
The F-35 program is one of the most expensive weapons programs in U.S. military history. Each F-35C cost more than $100 million, though the unit price is expected to decrease over time.
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