The Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II became the second fifth-generation platform to be evaluated on live-fire air-to-air weapons employment in support of National Defense Strategy objects, the U.S. Air Force announced on Tuesday. Earlier this month, the 356th Fighter Squadron made history as it became the first F-35A Lightning II unit in the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) to participate in an air-to-air weapons evaluation at Tyndall Air Force Base (AFB).
Successful completion of the Weapon System Evaluation Program (WSEP) East 22.01, which took place from Oct. 8 to 23, marked a significant milestone for the 356th Fighter Squadron, as the unit took the crucial step towards becoming the first Initial Operational Capable F-35A squadron in PACAF.
Assigned to the Pacific Air Forces, the 356th Fighter Squadron, which was reactivated in 2019 to operate the F-35, is a combat-coded fighter squadron capable of worldwide deployment in support of combatant commander objectives. It is currently tasked primarily with Offensive Counter-Air missions, utilizing its fifth-generation advanced sensor suite and weapons to help build a more lethal force around the Pacific.
The squadron regularly integrates with Australian, Japanese, Republic of Korea, and U.S. Navy F-35s to provide well-trained and ready forces to strengthen our nation’s alliances and build new partnerships.
During the recent exercise, nine live missiles were fired, all by first-time shooters, and these included the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile along with the AIM-9X Sidewinder. In addition, pilots had the opportunity to shoot the F-35A’s 25mm cannon for the first time against a QF-16-towed Aerial Target Gunnery System.
“An F-35A stationed in the Pacific is one thing, an F-35A stationed in the Pacific that has successfully passed WSEP is another,” said Chief Master Sgt. Scott Grabham, 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group (WEG) chief enlisted manager.
The 53rd WEG operates a fleet of subscale aerial targets along with the only full-scale, threat-representative targets in the Department of Defense (DoD). Those assets, coupled with the expansive airspace managed by the Eglin Test and Training Range, enable both short and long-range missile shots during training exercises. WSEP events provide invaluable training to maintenance and aircrew members.
“WSEP tests the effectiveness of their daily regime by injecting a deployed environment and live munitions,” added Grabham. “This is often the first time maintainers get a chance to load a live munition onto their aircraft and the first time aircrew experience launching a missile at a threat representative, maneuvering target. This is strategic deterrence in the region that needs it most.”
The realistic training is also evaluated by a hand-picked mix of experienced aircrew and maintainers, who are empowered to commend and critique exercise participants, Grabham explained.
“We compile missile-fire data from our newest platform (F-35A) with our latest missile variants and software, which helps refine tactical application of the weapons system, uncovers any issues with the platform/missile interface, and eventually feeds Air Force doctrine,” said Grabham.
The F-35A pilots from the 356th Fighter Squadron will continue their air-to-air weapons evaluation, as the next event is slated to combine WSEP East 22.02 with exercise Checkered Flag 22. It is slated to take place November 8-19 at Tyndall AFB.
F-35 Hitting the Milestones
Last month, the F-35A Lightning II also came one step closer to becoming the next Air Force aircraft, and first fifth-generation platform, to achieve compatibility with the refurbished B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, an air-launched nuclear gravity bomb that utilized an inertial navigation system (INS) to make a precision strike on a target. It was first integrated with the U.S. Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet, where it is carried externally.
Unlike with the other fighters including the F-15 and F-16, the B61-12 will be carried internally in the F-35, and in August began the first in a series of test flights that will end with a full weapons systems demonstration later this year.
Pilots from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, part of the Air Force’s 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, conducted two separate drops of high-fidelity, non-nuclear mock B61-12s at Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah Test Range, located 160 miles from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. The jets released the inert weapons at varying altitudes and airspeeds, clearing the desired flight envelope in which the F-35A plans to operate. Those flights marked the last of ten guided releases of B61-12 test assets on F-35A.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.