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.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Why do we need Merlin Crowsnest if F35s can provide first rate situational awareness and guide ship-launched missiles?

    • Crowsnest will have a further view, a broader view, will have much greater endurance & will be much cheaper to procure….

      It would be a waste of the lightnings flying time.

      Having said that, if/when a Queen Liz carrier is on a combat mission there probably will be one or two lightnings doing air patrol anyway.

  2. 360 degree radar coverage for one. As impressive as the agp-81 radar may be it only points where the nose points…..which is fine when attacking, not so much when defending. Plus dedicated console operators who don’t have to fight or otherwise fly the airframe have far better eyes on the data.

    Other likely advantages are endurance and operating cost per hour.

  3. yes.. I wondered about the Typhoons also, but they usually do well each year ! at the Red Flag exercise, it was good the UK sent 8 Typhoons to the exercise..

      • But fusing that incoming data with data from multiple other sensors is the really tricky part. I can’t see anyone being willing to put in the huge software development effort and probably significant upgrades to on-board processing power to allow Typhoon to do more than exchange targeting data with F-35s which is still useful but not the full data fusion that multiple F-35s can do.

        The exciting next step for Typhoon is going to be when it gets the AESA upgrade. The nose cone is unusually big so the existing radar is already very good and when it goes AESA the last I read was that they’re still going to keep the mechanical sweep on the array as well as the very wide electronic sweep that comes with AESA so the field of view is going to be exceptional. I’ve seen greater than 180 degree field of vision quoted although exactly how wide is classified I think.

  4. When you consider that there will maybe be 12 f35b onboard the qe class carriers, they really can’t afford to have any running the duty of the crowsnest.

    • There could possibly double that number of f35s, if not more on at once it all depends on the mission. But depending on that number some could fly in the duty of crows nest but it would be too expensive.

  5. did I miss the primary capability of the f35?, if Typhoons can do the situational awareness, why not built or buy some, to cut the cost. just wondering

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