WASHINGTON — As Air Force leaders ponder whether to send F-35As overseas this year in what would be the jet's first-ever operational deployment, officials could point to this year's Red Flag exercise as a case study of how it can enhance both training and combat.
Red Flag 17-1 wrapped up Friday after three weeks of high-intensity air-to-air training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Although the final results are not in yet, F-35 operators and service officials said the jet's performance actually got better in the last week of the exercise.
During a Friday interview, Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, who heads the Air Force's F-35 integration office, called Red Flag a "milestone event" that will help operational F-35A squadrons at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, determine whether they are ready for a "theater security package" — a deployment of six to eight aircraft and a small maintenance group to support training and exercises with partner nations.
Late last year, then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James hinted that F-35As would deploy to Europe this summer. But ultimately it will be up to combatant and major command heads to request that the joint strike fighter deploy to their area of responsibility.
Pleus demurred when asked about when a deployment is likely to take place, but he said all signs point to the F-35 being ready for the challenge.
"I think based on the data that we’re hearing right now for kill ratios, hit rates with bombs, maintenance effectiveness … those things tell me that the airplane itself is performing extremely well from a mechanical standpoint and … that the proficiency and skills of the pilots is at a level that would lead them into any combat situation as required," he told Defense News.
The F-35A pilots and maintainers who participated in Red Flag 17-1 were similarly reluctant to talk about a potential theater security package, but said they would be prepared to deploy overseas when given the thumbs up.
"We’re ready to take these jets on the road when we’re called upon to do so. I would say that there are some exciting things to come, most of which I can’t really talk to," Lt. Col. George Watkins, and F-35A pilot and commander of Hill AFB’s 34th Fighter Squadron, said during a Tuesday phone call with reporters.
One of the biggest advantages of the exercise — and one that could benefit F-35 operators if a theater security package is authorized later this year — was being able to integrate with allied countries participating in Red Flag. The Royal Australian Air Force brought E-7 Wedgetails, and the British Royal Air Force flew Eurofighter Typhoons.
"We got a lot of experience flying with our coalition partners," Watkins said. "That’s why when something kicks off and we have to work with coalition partners on a short notice, we would be unsuccessful in that endeavor if we didn’t have Red Flag to train together."
After about two weeks at Red Flag, the joint strike fighter brought down 15 aggressor aircraft for every one F-35A defeated. Its kill ratio has improved since then, but the data has not been finalized as of yet, he said.
For a fighter jet in an air superiority role, a kill ratio that exceeds 10-to-1 is considered "very good," Pleus said.
The F-35 also fared well in air-to-ground missions. Out of the 27 inert weapons dropped, 25 hit their intended targets. Watkins said the two missed targets were likely due to a failure of the weapon itself, not a problem with the aircraft's weapons delivery systems.
From a maintenance perspective, the F-35A achieved a mission capable rate of about 90 percent during Red Flag. The issues encountered by maintainers were mostly one-off problems, like a broken generator, and did not reveal any systemic flaws of the aircraft, said 1st Lt. Devin Ferguson, of the 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
"Did we have broken jets? Yes, but my maintenance team was solid and they were able to fix every single issue within 24 hours," he said.