Hill AFB Airmen bring F-35A’s vital capabilities to Red Flag’s modern fight

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Over the past two weeks, Airmen from the 421st Fighter Squadron and 421st Fighter Generation Squadron have been launching and flying the nation’s most capable multi-role fighter in the Air Force’s premier combat exercise.

Hundreds of pilots, maintainers, and support personnel from the 388th Fighter Wing have deployed to Nellis Air Force Base for Red Flag 24-1 with more than a dozen F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill AFB, Utah.

Red Flag, which started after the Vietnam War to provide pilots combat seasoning, has grown into an integrated ultra-modern fight, testing various units’ capabilities in the air, space and cyber domains. A friendly “Blue” force takes on an enemy “Red” force in scenarios created by a host “White” cell, the 414th Combat Training Squadron.

Night and day, participants on the ops side are huddling together, mission-planning solutions to defeat the complex problem sets presented by the exercise planners, and then flying to defeat them. Each scenario could see more than a hundred Red and Blue participants fighting in linked airspace across California, Nevada and Utah.

“Red Flag is a valuable opportunity for us to integrate the F-35 with other platforms and allied nations and fight in very realistic, challenging scenarios against the most advanced threats they can replicate,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Heguy, 421st FS commander.

As a multi-role stealth fighter, the F-35A’s primary job in many of these missions is Offensive Counter Air. This could mean escorting and protecting stealth bombers or other fighters by detecting and picking off enemy aircraft before they attack. Or, tracking down and eliminating surface-to-air threats with a combination of technology and tactics that are unique to the F-35. The Nevada Test and Training Range, in particular, replicates surface threats “better than anywhere else in the world.”

In this environment, where target objectives are protected by radar and surface-to-air missile networks woven together in lethal aerial shields, legacy aircraft cannot survive. The F-35’s stealth, advanced sensors, electronic attack and communications capabilities make it ideal for quarterbacking the modern fight.

“So far, we have had success taking these threats out and surviving, which is notable when you combine them with the very robust air-to-air threats here,” Heguy said. “But, not every day is a win. Some days are harder than others, and if we’re not struggling in training, we’re not training hard enough.” 

The F-35 has not only been holding its own in the air, but it’s been holding up on the ground as well, thanks to the maintainers in the 421st FGS.

“The jets have been performing extremely well. We haven’t lost a single sortie due to a maintenance issue,” said Maj. Bryan Butler, 421st FGS commander. “That’s a testament to our Airmen. Their ability to learn from this experience while executing the mission at the same time."