MCAS YUMA, AZ. --- Pilots of the new F-35 Lightning II have dedicated thousands of hours to study, simulation, and advanced equipment training in order to master the world’s most advanced fighter jet. Every lesson is geared to ensure success of the mission, and, particularly, success against enemy aircraft. But no amount of drills can prepare a pilot for one of the most challenging of lessons: engaging with the adversaries of VMFT-401.
Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, AZ is the home of Marine Fighter Training Squadron 401, the first and only reserve squadron in the Marine Corps tasked to act as the opposing force in simulated air combat. Flying the F-5N Tiger II, the “Snipers” study and mimic the tactics of enemy forces to accurately reproduce what the pilots will face in a warfare environment. Now, the Snipers are training the pilots of the Marine Corps’ newest aircraft, the F-35.
“We have one job: provide adversary support to Marine Corps aviation,” said LtCol Jayson Tiger, Commanding Officer, VMFT-401. “We simulate enemy tactics ensuring the fleet squadron can refine their own air-to-air tactics. In layman’s terms, we practice shooting each other down.”
VMFT-401 has spent the last 18 months providing support to the F-35 throughout different phases of its development, and training fleet aviators from all Type/Model/Series aircraft across the Marine Corps. They participate in different levels of the pilot trainings from introductory courses in Beaufort, N.C. to the more advance Weapons and Tactics Instructors (WTI) course here in Yuma,” said Tiger.
“What makes us unique is the linage and history of the squadron, and our ability to pass along over 30 years of history by standing on the shoulders of extremely experienced pilots and controllers,” said Tiger.
Established in 1986, VMFT-401 initially flew the Israeli F-21A Kfir fighter, and transitioned to the F-5E Tiger II in 1989. As of 2009, VMFT-401 falls under Marine Aircraft Group 41, and continues to fly the 50 year-old jet.
“The F-5 was first built during Vietnam, yet we’re still able to keep them well maintained in order to provide a good challenge for the new pilots undergoing training,” said Tiger. “In addition, this unit operates a higher sortie rate than any other T/M/S in the Reserve or Active component, and we hope to acquire more planes in the future to have a larger presence in more areas.”
Despite being the only unit of its kind in the Marine Corps, VMFT-401 is able to successfully play its part in maintaining mission readiness for a wide range of squadrons, and continues to fulfill its role as the new F-35 comes on deck.