Not only Russian Su-27 can do it – the F-35 landed on a highway

An F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, operated by the Marines, recently executed an impressive landing on an old 50-foot-wide highway in Southern California. After refueling and rearming, it took to the skies once more. 

Not only Russian Su-27 can do it - the F-35 landed on a highway
Photo by James Deboer

Simultaneously, at this makeshift forward arming and refueling point, a Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transferred a torpedo to a Navy MH-60R Seahawk helicopter. This was a tantalizing preview of the future of Marine operations in the Pacific, all captured by The War Zone

The United States Marine Corps recognizes the necessity of unprecedented cooperation with other services in austere locations to achieve victory in any potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific theater. 

The responsibility of preparing for such a conflict and creating the necessary strategic playbook rests on the shoulders of the Marines of Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1). 

The VMX-1’s exercise

Not only Russian Su-27 can do it - the F-35 landed on a highway
Photo by James Deboer

In a recent week, VMX-1 rallied nine squadrons and additional units from the Marines, Air Force, and Navy to execute the latest version of a training event named ‘Obsidian Iceberg.’

This initiative is a concerted effort to implement the distributed operations concept for the STOVL-capable F-35B, addressing the operational challenges of operating a fifth-generation fighter in remote locations with minimal logistical support and without the luxury of long, well-kept runways. 

The training exercise also aims to utilize VMX-1’s diverse fleet to quickly formulate and validate the tactics, techniques, and procedures required to effectively conduct customizable nodal Expeditionary Advanced Base Operation (EABO).

VMX-1 found an ideal location for the exercise Obsidian Iceberg 23.1, nestled between train tracks and I-5, in proximity to Camp Pendleton. This former segment of the Pacific Coast Highway presents a formidable challenge to participants with power lines and ditches to the west, and active train tracks a mere few yards to the east.

Not only Russian Su-27 can do it - the F-35 landed on a highway
Photo by James Deboer

Recognized by Marine aviators as VSTOL-101, the road has a history of serving as a practice landing site for Marine Harriers. VMX-1 breathed new life into the site for this distinctive training event. 

Obsidian Iceberg primary goal

The primary goal of Obsidian Iceberg is to evaluate the smallest possible landing width and length for the F-35B. However, VMX-1 maximized the use of its aircraft for diverse roles. MV-22Bs were utilized to transport ordnance, which encompassed eight GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bombs IIs/Stormbreakers, and two AIM-120 air-to-air missiles. Additionally, they carried fuel and an additional F-35 pilot who would exchange places with the initial pilot in the makeshift operating area. 

A pair of VMX-1 UH-1Y helicopters were assigned to ferry a Low Altitude Air Defense team, equipped with FIM-92 Stinger missiles, into the area. Subsequently, these helicopters took on the responsibilities of armed overwatch and communication. 

In Russia: Copied Soviet Yak-141's unit damaged the F-35 in Texas
Photo credit: Flickr / Samuel King Jr.

Overseeing the operation from an impressive altitude of over 15,000 feet was an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone from the 163rd Attack Wing at March AFB. Wrapping up the training, a Navy MH-60R landed at the highway’s southern end where it refueled and armed itself with a MK-46 training torpedo.

This seemingly straightforward ‘jointness’ of operations continues to present certain challenges that the Marines and the Navy are keen on surmounting.  

The Su-27: A Master of “Hard Landings”

On April 11th of this year, an intriguing video surfaced on the internet, showcasing the impressive capabilities of a Russian-made Su-27 Flanker fighter jet. The footage shows the jet deftly taking off and landing on a makeshift runway nestled within a forest, which is, in fact, an intercity road rather than a proper airstrip. 

The individual who shared this video on Twitter suggested that the Su-27s in question belonged to the Ukrainian forces. Despite the camouflage pattern being somewhat different from that typically seen on Ukrainian Air Force jets, we won’t quibble over such minor details. Whether it’s the lighting or the poor video quality causing the discrepancy, the key takeaway here is the Su-27’s exhibition of a skill previously associated only with Swedish SAAB Gripen JAS 39 fighters. 

This fascinating footage was unveiled on April 10. The wintry weather conditions suggest that it was likely recorded during the colder months, as evidenced by the noticeable snow cover, even on the road. Interestingly, the video features two distinct fighter jets, each sporting different camouflage – one in tones of blue and light blue, the other in shades of gray and black. 

Like the Swedish Gripen, certain Soviet fighter models were designed with the ability to utilize improvised, rough, and sometimes shorter runways for take-off and landing – a fact frequently mentioned in reports from BulgarianMilitary.com. This capability, now demonstrated by both the Gripen and the Su-27, is of significant strategic importance to the Ukrainian Air Force.

The F-16’s limitations

The F-16, eagerly anticipated by Ukraine from its global allies, finds itself at a disadvantage. Specifically, it falls short on the “takeoff/landing” performance on makeshift runways, when compared to counterparts such as the Su-27, the SAAB Gripen, and even the F-35 which boasts Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) capabilities. 

If Russia pollutes the runways, the US F-16 becomes unusable
Photo by US Air Force/Senior Airman Erica Webster

Designed with a different set of objectives, the F-16, like other aircraft in its class, lacks the ability to execute such unconventional takeoffs and landings. These aircraft necessitate a specialized depot for maintenance and a standard military airstrip to facilitate smooth takeoffs and landings. 

The quality of the runway is critical not only for the F-16’s landing gear but also for its sophisticated electronics and radar. Any severe impacts could result in significant damage. That said, there may be exceptions among Western aircraft specifically engineered for aircraft carrier landings. 

Aircraft designed for navy operations are built to withstand the high-impact landings common on aircraft carriers. The landing gear and electronics are crafted to endure considerable strain. The unpredictable nature of the sea can alter the position of landing decks on even the largest carriers, leading to rough landings. The F-16, however, is not designed to tolerate such conditions.

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