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F-35A program continues to make improvements

Four F-35 Lightning II aircraft prepare for takeoff at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, May 4. Hill's active duty and Reserve F-35 pilots recently began flying routine four-ship configurations, just as they would in combat. This marks a key milestone in getting the Air Force's newest fighter jet to reach Initial Operational Capability later this year, at which time it will be combat-ready. (U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Holcomb)

Four F-35A Lightning IIs prepare for takeoff at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The F-35A is expected to reach initial operational capability sometime between August and December, at which time it will be combat-ready. (U.S. Air Force photo/Paul Holcomb)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah (AFNS) -- Airmen of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings have been preparing the F-35A Lightning II for combat readiness since the first operational aircraft was received in September 2015.

Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, has said he expects the jet to reach initial operational capability sometime between August and December.

Aircrew and maintainers at Hill Air Force Base’s fighter wings say they’re confident in the combat ability of the aircraft. So far, they have flown more than 854 sorties with a 91 percent mission effectiveness rate.

Aircrew and mission

The wings’ 21 combat-ready active and reserve pilots put the aircraft through its paces during training sorties at the Utah Test and Training Range and a deployment to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, in June.

The pilots have trained against fourth-generation “aggressors,” like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle, and also low- and high-end surface-to-air threats, said. Lt. Col. George Watkins, the 34th Fighter Squadron commander, a former F-16 pilot with four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The combination of the stealth and sensor fusion (has) really blown me away,” Watkins said. “We can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We can cover so much ground and airspace, but the F-15s or F-16s we’re going up against don’t know where we are. They can’t see us and they can’t target us.”

All the pilots have deployed either live or inert GPS and laser guided munitions against ground targets and the aircraft are performing well in a basic close air support role.

“We’ve had really good feedback from the (special forces on the ground that) we’ve been working with over the course of our CAS training,” Watkins said.

As a multi-role stealth fighter, the F-35 can perform basic CAS missions, air interdiction and limited suppression of enemy air defenses.

“That’s where our capability really comes into play. We can detect (SAM) threats and take those threats out, negating them for the follow on forces while doing close air support at the same time,” Watkins said. “(In training,) the only reason the ‘enemy’ could track us is because we basically told them where we were and said ‘try to shoot at us.’ We were still able to take out the surface threats. They were only able to fire on us a couple times and they were what we’d call ‘low-probability of kill’ shots … with both low- and high-end surface threats.”

These mission sets will expand with the weapons suite as the program matures, Watkins said.

Aircraft and modifications


Twelve of the 15 operational F-35As at Hill have received the required modifications and software upgrades to deploy. The modifications included a fuel system upgrade that allows for higher “G” limits and another provides protection against lighting.

“These modifications had to be done on our existing fleet, but all of these mods are being implemented on the production line and by the time we get our 25th aircraft those will be done,” said Lt. Col. Steven Anderson, the deputy commander for the 388th Maintenance Group. “That’s the beauty of concurrent development. Part of the reason we’ve done a low rate initial production is because feedback from the initial unit gets put into the production line.”

The aircraft have also received software upgrades, which corrected radar instability issues that popped up with the initial fielding of jets. Because of their progress in the past 10 months, Airmen expect the improvements and capabilities will only continue.

“I went through F-35 training about a year ago and the jets we’re flying now are very different from the jets I learned to fly on at Eglin AFB, (Florida,) just 12 months ago,” Watkins said.

Maintenance and systems

There are currently more than 220 F-35 maintainers at Hill AFB, and that number will continue to grow as 78 jets are delivered through the end of 2019 and three F-35 squadrons are stood up.

Anderson said the current cadre is a “dream team” of hand-picked maintainers from Luke AFB, Arizona, and Eglin AFB -- where the Air Force began training Airmen and testing the aircraft.

It takes roughly 12 months to transition a fourth-generation maintainer to a fifth-generation platform. At full strength, there will be approximately 1,600 maintainers. While it will be a challenge, Anderson said, there is an extensive plan in place and he doesn’t foresee any shortfalls in maintainers or pilots.

The current version of the Autonomic Logistics Information System is fully deployable and improvements are in the works.

“Capability wise, we’re (where we need to be),” said Capt. Richard Palz, a 388th Maintenance Squadron operations officer. “Can there be improvements? Can there be increased efficiencies? Of course, and those are programmed in and some of those are being made with input from the field, which is the great thing about concurrent development, but there is nothing that we lack at all for a deployment.”

An IOC declaration is just “the starting gate” for the wings, said Anderson, but Airmen are excited for the future.

“It is a really good time to be at Hill AFB. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bed down a new weapons set and make it employable for the defense of our nation,” he said. “Even the youngest people in this program feel like they are making contributions that will last throughout the life of this aircraft.”

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