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Newest F-35A squadron brings fifth-generation capabilities to Red Flag

A photo of Airmen on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base.

A 421st Fighter Squadron F-35A Lightning II fighter pilot shakes hands with a 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit maintainer prior to launch during exercise Red Flag 20-1, Feb. 3, 2020, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The 421st FS is the 388th Fighter Wing’s newest F-35A unit. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada (AFNS) -- Pilots and maintainers with the 421st Fighter Squadron are launching and flying the F-35A Lightning II in their first Red Flag exercise together.

The exercise, which takes place from Jan. 27-Feb. 15, is meant to give at least 10 combat-representative sorties to younger pilots to better prepare them for real combat against very capable adversaries. The 421st Fighter Squadron is the most recent squadron to transition to the F-35A in the 388th Fighter Wing.

“We are the newest squadron, with the least amount of experience, who stood up the fastest,” said Lt. Col. Richard Orzechowski, commander, 421st FS. “We have a fairly high ratio of pilots with limited F-35 experience, including some who have never flown another platform. Flying in a large force exercise is a valuable learning experience for them.”

During Red Flag, a friendly “blue force” fights against an enemy “red force” in what is the Air Force premier large-force combat-training experience, including air, space, cyber and intelligence operations.

For the young pilots, their main challenge takes place in the mission-planning and briefing rooms. Then during the missions over the Nevada Test and Training Range, which is bristling with surface to air threats and covered by an integrated air defense system and aggressor aircraft flown by some of the best pilots in the world.

“They have about a 10-hour mission planning day. They sit down with all the other assets and figure out how to best tackle the mission scenario,” Orzechowski said. “The mission execution day is about 15 hours, with briefings and debriefings following the mission.”

A room full of pilots and operators dissecting the movements, actions and associated outcomes of each mission in “painful” detail is often the most valuable part of the exercise.

“The integration that they see here is critically important, and we can’t do our mission to the fullest without the support of every aircraft,” Orzechowski said. “Being here at Red Flag we get to do that face-to-face instead of simulating it in local training.”

Most often, the mission of the 421st is to take the F-35A into very dangerous, high-threat environments where older, less stealthy aircraft cannot survive, let alone win.

“Because of our low-observability and the high level of battlespace awareness that our pilots have in the F-35A, we are often asked to go in and take out complex surface threats or systems and protect other aircraft from high-end air-to-air fighters,” Orzechowski said. “The F-35 also has an extremely high level of battlefield awareness and can pass that information to other F-35s anywhere in the fight without any pilot interaction. In terms of the amount of information, think fiber-optic versus dial-up internet. That’s a huge advantage”

For Capt. Chris Shannon, his first time flying the F-35A at Red Flag has been both an education and a confidence boost in the lethality of his jet and his fellow Airmen.

“My confidence in our tactics, our aircraft’s capabilities, and our level of preparation have grown with each mission,” Shannon said. “In the F-35 community, we take tremendous pride in our ability to make other platforms more survivable and more lethal. It’s a great feeling to escort other aircraft and suffer zero losses from counter-air. Allowing them to focus on their primary mission, knowing we have their back – That’s a great feeling.”

The active-duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW are the Air Force's first combat-capable F-35A units. They fly and maintain the jet in a Total Force partnership, which capitalizes on the strength of both components.

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