The reported performance of the F-35 is a major victory for an aircraft that was criticised for its cost and earlier developmental setbacks.
Exercise Red Flag will be running until the end of the week and involves more ‘threats’ to pilots than any previous exercise. It is understood that the F-35 has earned a 15:1 kill ratio against the aggressor squadron F-16s.
An aggressor squadron is a squadron that is trained to act as an opposing force in military exercises.
Lt. Col. George Watkins, 34th Fighter Squadron commander, said flying the F-35A in combat .feels like air dominance’.
“I’ve had four of my (F-35A) pilots come back from missions, guys who have flown the F-15 and F-16 at Red Flag for years, and tell me ‘This is amazing. I’ve never had this much situational awareness while I’m in the air. I know who’s who, I know who’s being threatened, and I know where I need to go next.’ You just don’t have all of that information at once in fourth-generation platform.
The first day we were here, we flew defensive counter-air and we didn’t lose a single friendly aircraft. That’s unheard of.
The number of adversaries has increased, their skill level has increased, the sophistication of the surface-to-air threat has increased.”
Royal Australian Air Force Group Captain Stuart Bellingham, Air Operations Center director at Red Flag said:
“It is a step up and a look into the future for us. It’s really exciting to work alongside the F-35A and the F-22 to understand how we best integrate that into a high end fight in the training scenarios that Red Flag provides.”
According to a press release:
“Since the exercise began, Hill’s Airmen have generated 110 sorties, including their first 10-jet F-35A sortie Jan. 30 and turned around and launched eight jets that afternoon. They have not lost a single sortie to a maintenance issue and have a 92 percent mission-capable rate, said 1st Lt. Devin Ferguson, assistant officer in charge of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. Legacy aircraft average 70 to 85 percent mission-capable.”
The Royal Air Force have also deployed Typhoon jets, Sentinel and Rivet Joint intelligence gathering aircraft and Voyager tankers to Exercise Red Flag.
In the words of the Ministry of Defence, “Red Flag pits ‘Blue’ coalition forces against hostile ‘Red Force’ aggressors, mirroring real-life threats in air-to-air, air-to-ground, space and cyber warfare.”
Typhoons, from 6 Squadron, RAF Lossiemouth, are operating in a swing-role capacity, fighting their way into hostile airspace, launching precision strikes on ground targets and fighting their way out again. A Voyager tanker is taking part while a Sentinel and Rivet Joint are gathering intelligence and other mission-critical information.
The F-35 programme has gone through serious teething problems, problems also experienced by the majority of complex aircraft flying today such as the F-15, Typhoon or any other modern combat jet; it’s no secret however that the F-35 has had severe cost and schedule issues. The biggest issue for the project continues to be the fact it is the most expensive military weapons system in history owing to the sheer scope of the programme but that being said, aircraft costs are now coming down and will soon be similar to the cost of many aircraft it’s replacing.
Today the programme is maturing rapidly, right now much of the activity around the jet is dealing with software bugs and testing to validate the software, with most of the physical testing being to do with weapons integration and the gradual scaling up of capabilities that comes with each new software block.
The jet is a quantum leap in capability, able to give the pilot as much information as only theatre commanders have previously had. While the primary value of the jet is in its sensor and networking capabilities, it is also valuable in that it’s able to perform many tasks designed to increase the lethality of not only itself but other assets, such tasks include the ability to co-ordinate small fleets of unmanned combat aircraft, guide weapons launched from other platforms (even warships), launch a wide-range of its own weapons and use it’s own radar to conduct electronic attacks.
The F-35 will drastically increase the situational awareness and combat capabilities of the forces with which it will deploy and for the UK, where numbers may be a concern, it represents a fantastic way to enhance combat capability in any coalition or national effort. There is no denying that jet is overbudget and behind schedule compared to original estimates but an incredibly capable platform is emerging and one that I believe will shape the future of air combat.