General: Marines will deploy the F-35B to the Middle East next year

General: Marines will deploy the F-35B to the Middle East next year

The Marine Corps will deploy the F-35 into the Middle East next year, a Marine Corps general said Tuesday. 

"We're the first ones that are going to be deploying it. We are going to be deploying it on the USS Wasp. The interesting thing is, not only are we deploying it on the Wasp, we're also going to deploy it on the [USS] Essex during the same year in Central Command," said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh at a breakfast with defense reporters.  

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"So not only are we going to do one, we're going to do two. So that's quite the challenge to put two squadrons aboard two ships and deploy them," said Walsh, who is the commanding general at Marine Corps Combat Development Command and the deputy commandant at Combat Development and Integration.

Ten F-35Bs are headed to the Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in January, with six more scheduled to arrive after that in a scheduled change of station. 

Six F-35Bs are currently slated to go on the USS Wasp, while 10 will stay at the air station, Walsh said. The Wasp and Essex are amphibious assault ships.

Walsh said he wasn't sure exactly when the F-35B would get to the Essex, but said it could potentially be eight months after the Wasp. 

"The Essex right now is getting ready to go through modifications — so its F-35 alterations. Wasp was complete, it was our test ship, now [USS] America has just come out, and I think we're getting ready to just do more F-35 integration testing on America. Essex will go in and it will get those mods, and then it will come out and be ready for a deployment, I think, it's probably eight months or so after Wasp," he said. 

"We want to exploit fifth generation," Walsh said. "That's what I think it is as we look at this airplane. We've been after this for a long time. We're replacing our F-15s, our Harriers and our EA-6s with that airplane." 

Walsh said the deployment of the F-35 would provide the Navy with greater capability that hasn't been available on an amphibious ship. 

"Our airplanes before were CAS — close air support. Now with that airplane, you can just imagine what the battle force within the Navy will have with that airplane," he said. 

"It'll not just be close air support, it's going to open missions up across the battle force and certainly within the [Amphibious Ready Group — Marine Expeditionary Unit]." 

- Updated at 1:13 p.m.