The same week that U.S. Air Force F-35A stealth fighters dropped their first bombs in combat, F-35s from the same Utah base took part in a sprawling aerial war game involving dozens of warplanes flying more than 100 missions.
The exercise over Hill Air Force Base underscored the growing role of the F-35 in USAF training and operations. Despite the new fighter’s low readiness and the continuing debate over just how many of the radar-evading planes the Pentagon should buy and how fast, the F-35 is becoming more important by the day to the world’s biggest air force.
For two weeks starting in late April 2019, F-16s from the Air Force’s New Mexico-based 311th Fighter Squadron and South Korea-based 80th Fighter Squadron along with “adversary” planes from private firm Draken International deployed to Hill to fly alongside F-35s from the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing and reserve 419th Fighter Wing.
Some of Hill’s F-35s are on deployment in the Middle East, where on April 30, 2019, they dropped guided bombs on Islamic State forces in Iraq, marking the Air Force’s combat debut with the new stealth fighter.
In all, around 40 F-16s, F-35s and adversary planes few mock combat over Utah, practicing attacking a defending Hill’s runways and facilities. Draken didn’t specify which of its fighter types it dedicated to the war game. The company operates old A-4s and Mirage F.1s, among other types.
The exercise gave new F-16 pilots with the 311th Fighter Squadron a chance to tangle with pilots flying America’s newest fighter. “For the first week, the pilots flew basic fighter maneuvers – one versus one engagements commonly called ‘dogfighting,’” the Air Force stated. “They also flew advanced combat maneuvers, two aircraft versus four or more enemy aircraft. The students fly in a two-seat F-16, with an instructor in the back.”
During the second week of the exercise, new pilots flew “large-force” missions pitting many F-16s against other F-16s and F-35s. “Pilots took off in waves to simulate a large-force engagement with enemy aircraft,” the Defense Department stated.
The F-35s alongside F-16s and Draken’s own planes played the part of the enemy force. “We flew 100 F-35A missions with 22 aircraft, integrated on 56 F-16 missions and defended vulnerable assets for a 16-hour window,” the 388th Fighter Wing stated on social media.
The “blue force” F-16s outnumbered the “red force” F-35s, F-16s and adversaries. “We were severely outnumbered,” said Maj. Thomas Meyer, a weapons officer with the 388th Fighter Wing. “We had a five-to-one aggressor ratio and we were tasked with defending a list of assets over an eight-hour tour time block. We had aircraft sitting in alert status to respond to whatever enemy threats were presented.”
“The dogfighting training missions start out scripted, with set passes and distances, and then the students are challenged to improvise against more experienced pilots in a very capable jet,” according to the Air Force.
“These guys are getting really good at flying the F-35 and they can present some aggressive situations that force young pilots into errors,” said Maj. Benjamin Walters, 311th Fighter Squadron instructor pilot. “It’s not always the guy who should win that does win. At some point it's pilots in cockpits that win fights.”
The F-35 can be sluggish compared to the F-16. Its pilots primarily train to fight long-range air battles using beyond-visual-range missiles. “That’s the assumption, and we are very good at that,” said Maj. Jondavid Hertzel, a Hill-based weapons officer. “But in the fog and friction of war and chaos, fighting within visual range will probably always happen. And that’s why we train to it. Prepare for the unexpected in wartime.”
While the fighters clashed, maintainers on the ground “were tasked to continually provide ready aircraft,” the Pentagon stated.
“Maintainers worked in ‘cells’ of crew chiefs, weapons technicians and avionics technicians, overseen by a senior non-commissioned officer, that kept up to four aircraft ready for flight at all times,” Air Force Times reported. “The maintainers generated 44 sorties each day.”
“Normally our maintainers have two to three hours to turn an aircraft, so having to do so every 30 minutes really tests their skill,” said Capt. John Goodwin, a maintenance operations officer with the 419th Fighter Wing. “These exercises are an extremely effective and essential way to ensure our overall readiness.”