Stealth isn’t new in the Air Force; but, stealth combined with the multirole capabilities of the F-35A Lightning II is proving to be a game changer in the Nevada desert.
Units from across the Air Force have converged here for Red Flag 17-1, the Air Force’s premier air combat exercise, which pits a friendly force against an aggressor force in scenarios designed to give pilots true-to-life experiences before heading into actual combat.
Military strategists have long noted that while the United States has invested heavily in combat aircraft technology, potential adversaries have pushed their capital toward advanced surface-to-air missiles in integrated air defense systems. Planners say any realistic large-force exercise must test the Air Force’s ability to survive and suppress these sophisticated systems.
That is what the Airmen of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, bring to the fight with the combat-capable F-35A.
“During this Red Flag we’re training against the highest level threats we know exist,” said Lt. Col. George Watkins, the 34th Fighter Squadron commander. “Just as we’re getting new systems and technology, the adversary’s threats are becoming more sophisticated and capable.”
Fourth-generation aircraft, such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, A-10 Thunderbolt II and others, cannot operate in an environment where they are targeted by advanced anti-air systems with sophisticated radar and infrared capabilities.
Red Flag planners are tasking the F-35A with taking out these threats and the aircraft’s stealth capability is proving pilots can survive and operate effectively where others cannot.
“I flew a mission the other day where our four-ship formation of F-35As destroyed five surface-to-air threats in a 15-minute period without being targeted once,” said Maj. James Schmidt, a former A-10 pilot. “It’s pretty cool to come back from a mission where we flew right over threats knowing they could never see us.”
In past Red Flags, the friendly force did not have the capability to directly target advanced surface-to-air missile threats with an aircraft like the F-35A. Exercise planners would engage the targets with long range “standoff” weapons – like tomahawk missiles – before sending aircraft in to the fight.
“We would shoot everything we had at that one threat just to take it out. Now between us and the (F-22) Raptor, we are able to geo-locate them and precision target them.” Watkins said. “With the stealth capability of the F-35A we can get close enough to put a bomb right on them. That would be impossible with a fourth-generation aircraft.”
After taking out the ground threats, the multirole F-35A is able to “pitch back into the fight” with air-to-air missiles, taking out aircraft that don’t even know they’re there, Schmidt said.
This is the largest exercise to date for the combat pilots of Hill’s 34th Fighter Squadron and they’re learning to believe in what the multirole fighter can do in combat, said Maj. Shad Stromberg, a 419th FW Reserve F-35 pilot.
“After almost every mission, we shake our heads and smile, saying ‘We can’t believe we just did that’,” Schmidt said. “We flew right into the heart of the threat and were able to bring all of our jets back out with successful strikes. It’s like we hit the ‘I Believe’ button again after every sortie.”