ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England — The F-35A continues to prove itself a game changer as Airmen train together during the aircraft’s first overseas deployment.
Eight F-35As and more than 200 Airmen from the active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed here April 15. Pilots and maintainers are generating roughly 10 sorties a day, training alongside F-15Cs and F-15Es from the 48th Fighter Wing, as well as the Royal Air Force and other NATO allies.
Integrating with the F-35 is a new experience for many of the F-15 pilots.
“The sensor fusion capability of the F-35A gives (our F-15s) unprecedented situation awareness which is invaluable when you’re fighting against a high-end threat,” said Lt. Col. Scott Taylor, F-15C pilot and director of operations at Lakenheath’s 493rd Fighter Squadron. “The key is it allows us to make quicker, more accurate decisions on targets.”
The squadrons started the training deployment by flying simple missions and have progressed to more complex scenarios.
“We’ve been flying basic fighter maneuvers and air combat maneuvers, as well as air to ground missions,” said Lt. Col. George Watkins, F-35 pilot and 34th Fighter Squadron commander. “We fight air-to-air to get to simulated ground targets and once we take them out, we fight air-to-air to get back to our designated ‘safe’ zone.”
Pilots say the F-35A’s stealth and sensor capabilities increase the survivability of fourth generation aircraft and fourth generation aircraft make the F-35A more lethal.
“The stealth ability of the aircraft allows us to go where other aircraft cannot and our sensors and communication allow us to identify targets so fourth generation aircraft can dominate the airspace,” Watkins said.
The squadrons have also been flying against each other. F-15Cs are well known for being an air-dominance platform, and the F-35A pilots are enjoying the unique opportunity to fly against other Airmen in a foreign country in airspace they’ve never before flown in with the F-35A.
“For me, it’s my first time dogfighting against an F-15,” said Maj. Luke Harris, an F-35A pilot with the 34th Fighter Squadron. “Dogfighting is a test of pilot skill, but it’s also constrained by the aircraft’s capabilities and I’ve been really impressed by the flight control and maneuverability of the F-35.”
However, with the F-35A’s stealth capability Harris said dogfights aren’t likely. Stealth allows pilots to fly undetected to a “visual merge” and engage air targets before enemies have time to react defensively, which is an advantage over the fourth-generation tactics he employed when he flew the F-16.
“All the guys we’ve flown with have said that having the F-35 in the fight has been an eye-opening experience and they’re glad that these capabilities are on their side,” Harris said.
The training scenarios have allowed fourth and fifth generation pilots to compare notes and better prepare for future air combat.
“We fight best when we fight together. We’ve had a lot of synergy in our training. When we come back and talk after missions, we can have that face-to-face interaction and review our tactics. That’s just going to improve the way we fight with the F-35A and has made this an outstanding deployment,” Taylor said.