NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — What happens when the F-35A goes to its very first Red Flag, the Air Force's premier air-to-air training exercise?

The answer, according to U.S. military and international participants, is that the event itself becomes more challenging than ever, with a greater number of more capable aggressors outfitted with advanced weaponry.

Although the Marine Corps operated its short takeoff, vertical landing variant in the event last year, Red Flag 17-1 marks the debut of the conventional F-35A operated by the Air Force. After almost two weeks, 13 joint strike fighters from Hill Air Force Base in Utah have flown 110 sorties, said Lt. Col. George Watkins, 34th Fighter Squadron commander. 

"It's a much more difficult adversary that we are fighting against here as a team than we would have fought against a year and a half ago, when I was here last," Watkins said, referencing his previous Red Flag event, which he flew in as an F-16 pilot.

"They have stepped up the number of red air that we're fighting — the number of aggressor aircraft that are fighting against us — the amount of jamming and stuff that they're providing against us, the skill level of the adversary that they are trying to replicate, as well as the surface-to-air missile threat."

Fifth-generation aggressors will not be introduced during this Red Flag, but the sheer number of fourth-generation adversaries have posed a problem for participants. Up to about 24 adversaries can be in flight at the same time and can regenerate three or four times after being shot down, Watkins said.

The F-35A’s kill ratio stands at 15 aggressors to 1 F-35 killed in action, but because Red Flag is a training exercise, the fighter shouldn’t have a perfect record, he contended.

"If we didn’t suffer a few loses, it wouldn’t be challenging enough, so we’d have to go back and redo it. So there are some threats out there that make it through because of their sheer numbers and the advanced threats that they’re shooting at us. So we have had one or two losses so far in our training," he said. "That’s good for the pilots."

Once the F-35 reaches full combat capability, it will be more lethal, Watkins pointed out. The fighter is currently limited to an internal missile loadout, but will be able to carry a full complement of weapons — including external stores — as early as 2018 in Block 3F.

For many pilots of other aircraft, the exercise was their first opportunity to fight alongside the joint strike fighter. Lt. Col. Charles Schuck, an F-22 pilot and commander of the 27th fighter squadron, agreed that this year’s Red Flag featured a larger number of skilled adversaries with advanced capabilities. But his squadron’s experience partnering with the Marine Corps’ F-35Bs last year helped them understand how the F-22 and F-35 could augment each other, he said.

"Getting to work with them gave us a little bit of an advance leg up this time to know what kind of questions to ask our Air Force F-35s so that our knowledge was there," he said. "And it put us a little out in front in getting ready for the Red Flag, so we didn’t have to start from square one on the very first day."

Lt. Col. Dave DeAngeles, an F-35A pilot who commands the reserve detachment at Hill AFB, said the mission-planning sessions were critical for understanding how to best utilize the unique capabilities of each asset to cooperatively defeat a threat.

"I'm able to sit with my [E/A-18 Growler] partners and just say: ‘How are you able to go and fight different threats, and how are you able to jam them?’ And I'm able to share: ‘This is how I would fight with my F-35,’ " he said.

"Then, using the Link 16 network, we're able to kind of pass each other targets as well, so in certain scenarios where they say we need to take out a high-threat [surface-to-air missile] we'll work closely with the Growlers," he said. While the E/A-18s suppress the threat by jamming and other electronic attacks, "we're able to go ahead and take it out."

The F-35 has particularly excelled in missions where the enemy can launch advanced surface-to-air missiles. Previously, in scenarios with those weapons, blue forces, or friendlies, would put all their energy into taking them out with standoff weapons such as Tomahawk cruise missiles.

"We'd have to start from that, and then we'd peel back from there," Watkins said.

This year, Red Flag participants have encountered three or four different advanced surface-to-air-missiles in one scenario. In those situations, cyber, space and signals intelligence assets like the Rivet Joint partner with the F-35 to fuse together targeting information. Then, the F-22 uses its standoff weapons to bring down aggressors while the F-35’s stealth capabilities allow it to slip undetected within range of the missile system, where it drops munitions.

It would be too dangerous for a fourth-generation aircraft like an F-16 to get that close, Watkins said.

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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