Here's What You Need to Know: In a future air fight, the more stealthy F-35A could get closer to enemies, spot them, then relay targeting data back to F-15Xs, which could launch missiles at threats from a safe distance.
In January of last year, the first Red Flag exercise of the year began, pitting the USAF and various partners against various realistic air-to-air combat scenarios.
The exercise is considered by many to be “as close to real air-to-air combat” as possible and is instrumental in the development of air-to-air tactics and skills for USAF aviators. Several units equipped with the F-35A fighter jet participated.
Notably, this year’s Red Flag featured a more “contested” environment that assumed that the United States would not be able to maintain full air-superiority, simulating an air war against a peer or near-peer adversary with a modern air force and anti-air weapons.
The F-35 was designed for that environment. So how did it fare?
A public affairs release from one of these units, the 388th Fighter Wing, sheds some light on how the F-35A outclassed older jets during the exercise.
The most dramatic example of this is recounted in an anecdote by the 388th’s Operations Group commander. In an environment with heavy jamming, a young pilot just out of training flying an F-35 was able to spot a threat that a more experienced 3,000-hour pilot could not, as the other pilot was flying a 4th gen craft. The new pilot told the other pilot to turn back, then proceeded to eliminate that threat and multiple others.
While the exact nature of what happened is unclear due to operational security, is it possible that the F-35A’s EOTS or DAS targeting system visually spotted an enemy threat that went undetected by jammed radars.
Indeed, the F-35’s ability to act as the “eyes” of a formation was emphasized in the press release, given that the radar and optical sensors of the F-35 are some of the best of any aircraft flying today. F-35s also possess greater networking and datalink capabilities, which allow them to manage other sensor inputs and have a better battlefield picture than legacy aircraft. They can then pass on this “picture” to other aircraft.
But what could this mean for the other new aircraft that the air force is purchasing, like the F-15X?
The good performance of the F-35A at Red Flag probably means very little for the F-15X and similar programs. While the F-35A has arguably proved its worth as a valuable air combat aircraft, the F-15X fulfills a different role in the U.S. Air Force than the F-35.
If anything, the usefulness of the F-35A’s EOTS system proves that the F-15X upgrade is worth pursuing, as a similar system in the “Legion Pod” will be fitted to the F-15X. The F-15X will also be able to carry far more missiles than the F-35, sporting up to twenty-two air-to-air missiles in some loadouts.
In a future air fight, it’s possible that the more stealthy F-35A could get closer to enemies, spot them, then relay targeting data back to F-15Xs, which could launch the missiles at threats from a safe distance. The US military has embraced this kind of networked warfare as a whole, and the strengths of the F-15X and F-35A complement each other in such an environment.
It’s also worth noting that in the past F-35’s have performed very well at Red Flag. In 2017, kill ratios of up to 15:1 were cited for the F-35. While the current exercise is likely designed to be harder than previous Red Flags due to a change in what the U.S. military is training for, the F-35 still performed well.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.
This article first appeared in 2019.
Image: Flickr / U.S. Air Force