PENTAGON – The Marine Corps added one final test before deciding whether to declare initial operational capability for the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF): a first-ever Operational Readiness Inspection.
The ORI for the first F-35B squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, is scheduled to begin today and will last four or five days. An inspection team – with members from Headquarters Marine Corps, the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) school and the Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFA-T) 501 – will “assess them from a maintenance perspective, a sustainment perspective and an operations perspective,” deputy commandant for aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis told USNI News on July 8.
“We have a team of about 12 people going out to assess everything from maintenance to NATOPS (Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization) knowledge,” he said.
“There’s 10 items on a Commander of Naval Air Forces inspection, maintenance inspection; we’re going to go out and out of those 10 say, give us these five. And then we’ll look and if there’s problems with those five we’ll go deeper.”
This isn’t really an inspection of the F-35, but rather the squadron itself, VMFA-121. Are the people trained to do their jobs? Does the squadron have all the people it needs? Can they maintain the aircraft? Do they have a spare parts inventory?
And ORIs, or similar variously named inspections, are a regular feature of military life. Some are more realistic than others, but all are geared toward finding the real readiness level of a unit to fulfill its mission.
One of the things about introducing a new platform into operational service is that no matter how much testing you put into a system, it isn’t until it reaches the fleet that the tactics, techniques and procedures that will be used to fight it can really be developed. Most of the testing of a platform before it reaches the fleet is technical. It is the fleet squadrons that have the wide user base coupled with experimentation and innovation that find the best practices for using a system.
Does that mean initial operations will be easy? Or even fully successful? No. Most platforms, even after exhaustive testing, suffer some shortcomings in initial service. We’re talking about extremely complex systems that are operated and maintained by guys in the late teens and early twenties. There will always be problems.
I’m aghast at the stupendous cost of the F-35B, and Marines insistence on a STOVL variant fundamentally compromised the entire JSF program. But for all that, I strongly suspect the F-35 will continue to evolve into an effective attack aircraft.