The F-35’s participation in the Air Force’s capstone training event at Nellis AFB, Nevada, which is known as one of the world’s most realistic and challenging air-to-air combat exercises, marked a crucial test for the fifth-generation fighter. This year, pilots went up against the most aggressive threat laydown ever seen at a Red Flag: more surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), more jamming, and more red air, said Lt. Col. George Watkins, 34th Fighter Squadron commander.
The exercise began Jan. 23 and will continue until Feb. 10.
Despite the stepped up threat, pilots lost only one F-35 to every 15 aggressors killed in action—an impressive kill ratio for an aircraft that is not designed as an air-to-air fighter.
Where before an would not even see the advanced threat on the battlespace—the blue forces would take them out ahead of time with standoff weapons—now with the F-35 added to the mix, pilots can detect and pinpoint multiple threats at once, Watkins said.
Faced with three or four different advanced SAMs in one scenario, F-35 pilots gather and fuse data from a multitude of sources. Then the stealthy aircraft slips undetected within range and takes out the threat. If the F-35 runs out of munitions,
“Before where we would have one advanced threat and we would put everything we had—F-16s, , F-18s, missiles, we would shoot everything we had at that one threat just to take it out—now we are seeing three or four of those threats at a time,” Watkins said. “Just between [the F-35] and the [F-22] Raptor we are able to geo-locate them, precision-target them, and then we are able to bring the fourth-generation assets in behind us after those threats are neutralized. It’s a whole different world out there for us now.”
The F-35 and the air superiority F-22, in particular, make a deadly team, the pilots said.
“When you pair the F-22and the F-35 like together with the fourth-generation strikers behind us, we’re really able to dominate the air space over the Nellis test and training range,” Watkins said.
As of Feb. 3, 13 F-35s from Hill AFB, Utah, had flown 126 missions and only lost three or four aircraft. They had not lost a single sortie to maintenance. Although there have been issues with the F-35’s 3i software load—the aircraft’s systems occasionally shut down and need to be rebooted and there were also problems with clutter and repeating targets—none of the aircraft at Red Flag have experienced any system failures. That is a huge improvement over the F-16s, Watkins said.
“It’s been pretty eye-watering here for me to go out every day and have every single mission system operating,” Watkins said. “Tie that sensor fusion and that situational awareness with the survivability of the platform [and] it’s really a game-changer.”