WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force will deploy the F-35A to fight the Islamic State group in the Middle East in the "not too distant future," potentially a few years down the road, the outgoing head of Air Combat Command said Friday.

"The Middle East deployment isn't imminent, it's planned for a few years out," Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle told reporters, noting that the service expects to send small detachments of F-35s to Europe and the Asia-Pacific region first, maybe as soon as this spring. 

But the Air Force is already discussing the aircraft's first deployment to Central Command, where its situational awareness and sensor fusion capabilities could greatly help U.S. air assets conducting strikes in Iraq and Syria, he said. Specifically, the F-35s could prove beneficial in and decreasing the risk of collisions with Russian aircraft and spotting surface-to-air threats.

"If you look at portions of Syria, it's a pretty dense surface-to-air threat inside that arena," he said. Both the Russian and Syrian militaries have stationed active surface-to-air missile systems inside the country to protect important facilities and assets.

"We try to deconflict. We try to make sure that they know that they need to not, certainly, illuminate our aircraft, but those systems are operating in that environment," he said. "They’re not illuminating our aircraft with any type of target tracking radars or anything like that in large numbers or to any great extent that I know of. … But their radars are active."

Other F-35 capabilities, such as stealth and electronic attack, could also prove beneficial, said Carlisle, who is set to retire in March.

The F-35 is still undergoing its development phase, with full combat capability slated for 2018 when its Block 3F software becomes available. At that point, the aircraft will be able to carry a full suite of weapons, including external stores, and have greater functionality with its logistics system. However, Carlisle said the Air Force has not decided whether the Middle East deployment will consist of 3F jets or 3I, the F-35 iteration currently in use.

The F-35 would be the second stealth fighter sent to battle ISIS. The F-22 has conducted periodic deployments to the Middle East for airstrikes against the militant group, dynamic targeting and enhanced situational awareness. Carlisle imagines the F-35 would eventually play a similar role.

But first, a "theater security package" of F-35As will likely be sent to Europe and the Asia Pacific sometime this year. That experience will help the Air Force learn whether the jet is ready to deploy in battle, whether the newest 3F jets will need to be deployed and whether the F-35 maintenance and logistics infrastructure is mature enough to support operations. Carlisle also noted that the Air Force is still working on the F-35's mission data files, which provide information about threats.

But with aircraft availability a continued difficulty for the service, a CENTCOM deployment will happen sooner rather than later, the outgoing ACC head said.

"Capacity right now is a challenge for us. So everything I have that’s operational is going to rotate through the [area of responsibility]," he said.

Hill Air Force Base, Utah, which hosts the first operational F-35 squadron, conducted an overseas deployment before its conversion to the joint strike fighter. "As we convert Hill to F-35s, then they’ll get back in the rotations for the Middle East deployments in their F-35s. It’s not because it’s a stealth airplane necessarily, it’s because it’s the 388th [Fighter Wing’s] turn to go the AOR deployment."

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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