The United States Air Force has completed its first ever overseas deployment of the stealthy new Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
Eight of the single-engine strike fighters deployed to RAF Lakenheath in Great Britain as part of the United States’ efforts to reassure America’s European allies and deter potential Russian aggression in the theater. The aircraft—which belong to the Thirty-Fourth Fighter Squadron—are normally stationed with the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
“This exercise provided our pilots with the opportunity to practice working together to solve complex tactical scenarios using integrated operations that optimized both the F-35 and F-15’s capabilities,” said Lt. Col. Jason Zumwalt, commander of the 493rd Fighter Squadron, which flies the Boeing F-15C Eagle as of the Lakenheath-based Forty-Eighth Fighter Wing. “We found that by working together, we can achieve a higher level of performance than either aircraft can achieve alone.”
With fourth-generation fighters expected to serve alongside newer fifth-generation stealth fighters for decades to come, integrating the two classes of aircraft is becoming increasingly important. While fifth-generation fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 bring stealth and advanced sensors and information systems to the fight, older fourth-generation jets bring a massive payload—which the low observable platforms lack. Together, the aircraft are an even more formidable team.
“This deployment was a great opportunity for the 34th (FS) and the 48th (FW) to practice 4th and 5th generation fighter integration tactics,” Zumwalt said. “It was an honor to host the 34th (FS) at RAF Lakenheath, where we were able to integrate our operations in a shared workspace.”
The deployment is also an opportunity for the United States Air Force to show off the new jet to NATO allies in the European theatre. The F-35, like the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon before it, will eventually make up the overwhelming bulk of the NATO alliance’s airpower assets. This deployment was a preview of sorts for many of those partner nations.
Moreover, for the Forty-Eighth Fighter Wing—also called the “Liberty Wing”—the F-35 deployment is an opportunity to troubleshoot any potential issues that might crop up for when the JSF is permanently assigned to Lakenheath. The Forty-Eighth Fighter Wing is expected to trade in its powerful fleet of Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles and F-15C Eagles for three squadrons of F-35As in 2021. Thus, the deployment gave the wing’s pilots and maintainers an early look at their new mount.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: U.S. Air Force