Plan of Marine Corps second opposing squadron
The Marine Corps aviation plan for fiscal year 2022 includes plans to create a second squadron to provide different air combat training for fighter units. The unit, Marine Fighter Training Squadron (VMFT) 402, will activate at MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina in 2023 to provide adversary assets to Marine East Coast squadrons, with initial operational capability planned for 2024.
The creation is part of a plan to fill a perceived gap in adversary training for the U.S. Marine Corps and also the modernization of the fleet, which currently employs Northrop F-5N (single-seat) and F-5F (two-seater) Tiger II. from stocks acquired from the Swiss Air Force in the late 2000s. The only current Marine adversary unit is VMFT-401 “Snipers” at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, which began operations with IAI F- 21A Kfirs leased in 1987. Switched to the Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II in 1989 and later acquired the updated F-5N/F.
The VMFT-401 is about to transition to the F-5N+ and F-5F+. Under the ARTEMIS (Avionics Reconfiguration and Tactical Enhancement/Modernization for Inventory Standardization) program, the Navy is upgrading its F-5s with modernized cockpit and avionics, overhauled airframes and engines, and the addition of safety features and reliability, while solving obsolescence issues.
The first F-5N+ arrived at NAS Patuxent River in September for testing. The work is being carried out by Tactical Air Support, which also operates its own fleet of upgraded F-5Es under “Red Air” contract work. The company is supporting a block upgrade program that is expected to incorporate Tactical Combat Training System (TCTS) II in the near future, as this system allows injection of synthetic adversaries.
The F-5N+ conversion prototype is seen after arriving at Patuxent River for testing in September 2021. (Photo: Naval Air Systems Command)
Initially, ARTEMIS will cover the 16 F-5Es and six F-5Fs recently purchased from Switzerland and stored since their acquisition. However, it is expected to be extended to the fleet of more than 40 F-5N/Fs currently in service with opposing Navy and Marine Corps squadrons. This fleet includes three so-called “Frankentiger” two-seaters, which were created by mating the rear of single-seat F-5Es with two-seat F-5F cockpit sections. VMFT-401 will be among the first recipients of the F-5N+/F+, and VMFT-402 is also expected to begin operations with this variant.
Meanwhile, opposing Navy units are undergoing changes as the last “legacy” F/A-18 Hornets are retired. Fleet Composite Squadron (VFC) 13 “Fighting Saints” at NAS Fallon, Nevada received its first ex-US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16C Block 32 in late April. These replaced the F-5N/Fs which, in turn, were passed on to VFA-204 “River Rattlers” at NAS/JRB in New Orleans, Louisiana to replace the Hornets. In the aftermath, the squadron will be renamed VFC-204.
This process will leave VFC-12 “Fighting Omars” at NAS Oceana, Va., and the Naval Air Warfare Development Center (NAWDC) in Fallon as the last operators of the “legacy” Hornet. The NAWDC is expected to receive F-16C Block 32s and F-16D Block 25s later this year. VFC-12 is expected to receive first-production F/A-18E/F Block I Super Hornets, although it is uncertain whether sufficient numbers will be available to achieve this, and further F-16s may be transferred of the Air Force.