The U.S. Navy has released a video of U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Joint Strike Fighters conducting flight operations from the deck of the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, including a clip of one of the jets conducting live-fire training with its 25mm underbelly gun pod. Makin Island and the F-35Bs onboard, as well as other elements of its Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG, and the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, are in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. These Navy and Marine forces, among other U.S. military elements in the region, are supporting the withdrawal of American troops from that East African country, which you can read about in more detail in this recent War Zone piece.
The footage from Makin Island first appeared online on Dec. 23, 2020, but was filmed four days earlier. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) only publicly announced the arrival of the Makin Island ARG, which also includes the San Antonio class landing platform dock amphibious ships USS San Diego and USS Somerset, as well as the embarked 15th MEU, in the region on Dec. 22. In addition to the F-35s, the aerial component of the 15th MEU also includes MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters, AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, and UH-1Y Venom light utility helicopters, as well as RQ-21 Blackjack drones. Navy MH-60 Seahawk helicopters are also part of the joint force.
The video, seen below, starts with a clip of four F-35Bs on the Makin Island's deck, all of which appear to be equipped with the GPU-9/A gun pod. The stealthy fighter jets also have wingtip rails for carrying AIM-9X Sidewinders installed, but without any of those missiles loaded onto them. No other external weapons or pylons are visible and it's not clear if any of the jets had munitions loaded in their internal bays.
One of the jets is subsequently seen conducting a short takeoff from the Makin Island. The video then cuts to footage of an F-35B performing a gun run into the ocean near the amphibious assault ship, emitting a familiar “brrrt” sound as the aircraft pulls up.
"The F-35Bs are providing close-air support to Operation Octave Quartz [OOQ]," the video's caption says, referring to the official name of the Somalia withdrawal operation. "The mission of OOQ is to relocate U.S. Department of Defense forces in Somalia to other East Africa operating locations while maintaining pressure on violent extremists and supporting partner forces."
The GPU-9/A is the only gun presently available for the F-35B, as well as the U.S. Navy's F-35C variant, which is designed to operate from Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) configured aircraft carriers. The pod contains a four-barrel 25mm GAU-22/A Gatling-type cannon with a rate of fire of around 3,300 rounds per minute, along with 220 rounds of ammunition, or enough for around four seconds to total firing time. The F-35A version of the Joint Strike Fighter, which the U.S. Air Force, among others, operates, has an internally-mounted GAU-22/A gun.
Though designed to have as little impact on the radar signature of the F-35B and the F-35C, the gun pod does still make the aircraft less stealthy. It also imposes weight and drag penalties just like any other external store. As such, it is generally not installed when these jets must be at their stealthiest and most maneuverable.
However, it's not necessarily surprising that the 15th MEU's F-35Bs are flying with them in the course of their current mission, given the nature of the threats U.S. forces in Somalia face from terrorist groups, including Al Shabaab, which is Al Qaeda's franchise in the country, and an ISIS faction.
Al Shabaab, in particular, does present a very real danger in the region, as was made painfully clear when the group carried out an unprecedented attack on an airfield that U.S. forces operate from in Kenya in January, killing three Americans and destroying six aircraft. At the same time, it has no aircraft of its own or major air defense systems, though these militants have employed shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), in the past. Instead, the group is primarily armed with a variety of light weapons and also employs light vehicles, motorbikes, and all-terrain vehicles, as well as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
As such, an F-35B employing its gun pod could well be enough to help break up an attack on U.S. forces, as well as their local partners, in Somalia. The ability to focus the gun's fire more narrowly on a small target might actually make it the optimal weapon, even compared to the relatively small 500-pound class precision-guided bombs the Marine jets can carry, if the enemy is situated close to friendly forces or innocent bystanders.
This isn't the first time that a Navy amphibious assault ship carrying F-35Bs has taken up station off Somalia and been prepared to support U.S. and partner forces in that country. In 2018, these stealth jets made their first-ever deployment to the Horn of Africa region aboard the Wasp class USS Essex and they were reportedly on call to provide close air support ashore, if necessary.
At that time, the U.S. military also released pictures of the F-35Bs flying with their gun pods installed, though there were no reports that they conducted any strikes in Somalia while they were in the region. The Joint Strike Fighters aboard Essex during that cruise did go on to become the first Marine F-35Bs to conduct strike missions, but against targets in Afghanistan.
Stealth fighters, such as the F-35B, may seem like overkill for strikes in Somalia or Afghanistan, but there will increasingly be no other option for Marines when it comes to conducting fixed-wing strike operations from Navy amphibious assault ships. The service plans to eventually retire all of its existing AV-8B Harrier jump jets with these short takeoff and vertical landing capable variants of the Joint Strike Fighter taking their place.
Though the Marine Corps, together with the Navy, are beginning to explore new distributed warfare concepts, with less emphasis on traditional amphibious warfare ships, ARGs, and the MEUs they carry, will continue to be an important part of the two services' forces posture. They are likely to continue patrolling around the world specifically in order to be better positioned to help respond to various kinds of contingencies, including ones in lower-threat environments such as Somalia, on relatively short notice.
"The arrival of the ARG/MEU and its significant combat capability demonstrates our resolve to support our partners and protect our forces through this transition," U.S. Air Force Major General Dagvin Anderson, the commander of the overall task force supporting Operation Octave Quartz, known as Joint Task Force Quartz (JTF-Q), and the head of Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA), had said in a statement on Dec. 21. "This is a great example of how the United States can rapidly aggregate combat power to respond to emerging issues. We will look to leverage this inherent flexibility of the U.S. military in support of our future engagements in East Africa."
All told, what we've seen of the F-35Bs operating off the coast of Somalia, including being prepared to employ their gun pods, looks set to only become increasingly the norm for the service, even in lower-intensity conflict zones.
With regards specifically to the current effort to withdraw the majority of U.S. forces from Somalia, the Pentagon has said that it expects that operation to wrap up by Jan. 15. Between now and then it remains to be seen if any Marine Joint Strike Fighters will employ their gun pods, or any other weapons, in anger in Somalia.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org