Key point: In 2018 the Trump administration suspended Vigilant Ace as a concession to North Korea, hoping that Pyongyang in turn would suspend its nuclear-weapons program.
The U.S. Air Force’s first two front-line F-35 wings in January 2020 conducted their biggest-ever mass staging of the single-engine stealth fighters.
Fifty-two of the 78 F-35As belonging to the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing and the reserve 419th Fighter Wing on Jan. 6, 2020 lined up on the runway at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The so-called “elephant walk” marked the wings’ declaration of “full warfighting capability.”
The large-scale staging also is a reminder of the importance of rapid sortie-generation for U.S. forces, especially in South Korea.
The 52 F-35s represent more combat-ready stealth warplanes than China and Russia combined possess. The Hill wings’ three squadrons, which as of early 2020 are the Air Force’s only deployable F-35 units, have been working up to their full combat capability since the first F-35 arrived at the base in late 2015.
Hill’s 78th and final F-35 arrived in December 2019. The two fighter wings at the base pool planes, people and facilities. The 34th Fighter Squadron in early 2016 deployed six jets to the United Kingdom for training. Three years later, the wings simultaneously were able to deploy all three of their shared squadrons.
The 4th Fighter Squadron deployed to the Middle East for airstrikes on militants while the 421st Fighter Squadron traveled to Europe for training alongside NATO allies and the 34th Fighter Squadron spent two months in Idaho for training. “In a seven-day span the wings had aircraft, equipment and personnel operating out of nine different countries,” the Air Force stated.
“Every training opportunity, exercise and deployment we’ve completed over the past four years has been a key stepping stone in reaching full warfighting capability,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “This is just the beginning of sustained F-35A combat operations and we will remain focused on staying ready to deploy whenever, wherever we’re needed.”
“When the first jets arrived at Hill, about 50 percent of the maintainers were fully-trained, seasoned F-35 maintainers from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and Luke Air Force Base, Arizona,” the Air Force stated in a release. “Since then, there has been an influx of new manning with less experience, and every other maintainer has been ‘homegrown.’”
“It was really exciting to get the first jet in 2015 as we’d been talking about it and looking forward to it for a long time,” said Chief Master Sgt. Eric Engel, 466th Aircraft Maintenance Unit superintendent with the 419th Fighter Wing. “When we started out, most of our folks were longtime F-16 maintainers and it’s been truly impressive to see their aptitude and quick transition to a fifth-gen aircraft that is so vastly different from the F-16.”
“We really relied on our more experienced personnel, and as we received more aircraft, spread them throughout the group to train and equip the next F-35A aircraft maintenance units the right way,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander.
The January 2020 elephant walk continues a tradition of mass warplane-stagings. On Nov. 19, 2018, the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings launched 35 F-35s in a short span of time.
The Hill stealth fighters took off one at a time in roughly 30-second intervals. In just a few minutes, the wings launched as many F-35 sorties as they normally do in a full day of routine training.
"Exercising with multiple squadrons of F-35s can demonstrate our ability to defeat potential adversaries wherever they may arise," Maj. Caleb Guthmann, then the 34th Fighter Squadron's assistant director of operations, said in a statement.
Elephant walks significantly contribute to the readiness of American and allied squadrons in South Korea and nearby countries.
In the event of war with North Korea, U.S. and allied forces plan to quickly target the roughly 13,000 artillery pieces that Pyongyang has massed along the Korean demilitarized zone. In the early hours of a war, that artillery likely would bombard Seoul, which lies just 25 miles south of the DMZ
An air campaign targeting North Korea would require 2,000 sorties per day, U.S. military officials told Air Force magazine. The F-16s and A-10s in South Korea and Japan—and any F-35s that deployed in time for the first day of fighting—likely would be the first to hit North Korean artillery. And they'd have to launch fast to save lives in Seoul.
There is a reason that the 7th Air Force in South Korea and Japan has organized more elephant walks than most air force commands have done. "The threat here on the peninsula is very real, and countering that threat needs to be in the forefront of our minds," Col. William D. Betts, then-commander of the 51st Fighter Wing in South Korea, said in 2017.
The U.S. Air Force organized elephant walks in South Korea in 2016 and 2017 but not in 2018.
In 2018 the Trump administration suspended Vigilant Ace as a concession to North Korea, hoping that Pyongyang in turn would suspend its nuclear-weapons program. North Korea has continued to develop its nukes.