MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho — The 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base’s 388th Fighter Wing, is flying the F-35A Lightning II alongside other Air Force units in Gunfighter Flag July 12-19.
The exercise, similar to larger combat exercises like Red Flag at Nellis AFB, Nevada, will bring together various Air Force aircraft into a joint force to strike targets in high-threat environments, including: F-15E, F-15C, A-10 and E-3 AWACS.
The training range complex at Mountain Home has advanced electronic warfare threats, which combined with supersonic, overland airspace, make it a unique training environment, said Lt. Col. Travis Stephens, F-15E pilot and 391st Fighter Squadron commander.
“Nowhere else outside of Red Flag can we get this type of training with a fifth-generation aircraft.” Stephens said. “We’re on the cutting edge of tactics development. The future of F-15s and F-35s working together, which will be the heavy hitting platforms for the Air Force, is being developed here this summer.”
The F-35 and F-15 are both multi-role platforms, capable against both air and ground targets. The F-35A’s advanced sensors and low observability and the F-15’s payload and maneuverability make the pair a lethal combination.
“A lot of what we’ll be doing is protecting the strikers from multiple surface to air missile threats as they take down targets,” said Lt. Col. Christopher White, F-35 pilot and director of operations for the 34th Fighter Squadron. “First in, last out. Similar to the old Weasel mission. Our goal is always not one striker loss. It’s going to be a great time.”
For many of the 34th’s newer wingmen, who have never been to Red Flag or other large force exercises, this will be a first. The seasoning will be valuable and cost-effective.
“It used to be Red Flag was a once, maybe twice in a career kind of thing because of the cost,” White said. “But we are able to get a lot more reps up here, and the 366th FW does a good job with the threats and the range space here. Gunfighter Flag makes large exercises like Red Flag more effective. If you’re a young pilot, they’re not going to be fumbling their way through their first large exercise because they’ve seen similar scenarios before.”
The training day doesn’t start when the jets leave the runway and it doesn’t stop when the engines spin down. Often, the most valuable part of any integrated exercise is the mission planning and the debriefing. It makes for long days, but it’s worth it, said White.
“Hey, what can you do? What is your tactical problem with this type of SAM? How close can you get? How many red air can you handle? How many do you need me to shoot?” White said. “All that back and forth is where the tactical learning is. Going back to the drawing board and making it work together.”
The 34th FS has already been operating out of Mountain Home for the past month as Hill’s runway is under construction. The exercise will cement the learning that already taken place, pilots say.
That training is shaping tactics and making a stronger, more lethal and ready integrated-fighter force for the future, said Maj. George Arbuckle, F-15 pilot and 391st Fighter Squadron director of operations.
“The book hasn’t been written yet. We all bring different things to the fight. As they bring new capabilities online with the F-35, we’re getting upgrades in our jet as well,” Arbuckle said. “We’re figuring out different and better ways of working together, and those will be written in to our tactics.”
After Gunfighter Flag, the 34th FS will remain at Mountain Home through early August and continue to train alongside the 366th FW. They will also complete both Combat Hammer and Combat Archer weapons evaluations.
“We’re telling the young guys, it’s all about the squadron staying ready for “night one” of combat ops,” White said. “We’ll have given everyone a good swath of mission sets, basic fighter maneuvers, flying against F-15s, integrating with them, dropping all of our munitions, strafing moving targets in a contested environment. It’s been good.”