The F-35A is at its first Red Flag! And we’ve gotten some reports of how it’s doing.
First, a little review. Red Flag is the most advanced aerial combat exercise in the world. In a given year, there are several Red Flags, operated out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. There, the US Air Force and US Navy squadrons join with squadrons from other NATO and Non-NATO allies to engage in a series of realistic training exercises. They have the full suite of AWACS support, and air combat is staged against the Aggressors, instructor pilots who fly F-15s and F-16s and are trained in a wide variety of foreign flight tactics.
The Aggressor pilots are the best dogfight pilots in the world. That is literally all that they do. Their job is to be the nastiest guys in the sky, to catch pilots making mistakes in training where there’s a nice debrief so they can learn from their errors. Beats the Hanoi Hilton.
And the F-35 is, of course, the next fighter of the US Air Force, the US Navy, the US Marine Corps, the Royal Navy, the Israeli Defense Forces, South Korea, Australia, and a whole lot of others. It’s a huge, complicated, advanced program. And it’s had its share of problems as well as its share of detractors. And it was my pick for Borgundy’s Fighter in the Procurement Games. Despite the problems, I stand by that decision.
So with all that in mind, let’s see how it did. Keep in mind, this is only one Red Flag exercise. Small sample sizes can lead to problems. But it’s the data we have, and given the questions, it’s worth commenting on now.
As befits USAF doctrine, the F-35 has been primarily tasked with strike and SEAD missions. The USAF has F-22s for air combat. And the F-35 has done great. They didn’t lose any fighters on day one of the exercise when they engaged enemy air defenses, which is not something that usually happens. The Aggressor Team had to revise their exercises to be more complex and difficult in order to make life more difficult for the ‘Blue’ team (the good guys with the stealthy fighters). These tests are only interesting when they are hard.
But let’s talk about dogfighting. Nobody else has Raptors, so the rest of the world will need the Lightning II to be ready to mix it up, and the F-35 got some dogfights in. We do not know any of the specifics of the engagement–range, circumstances, rules of engagement, simulated loadouts, etc. But we do have a final score. 15-1 in favor of the Lightning. Questions abound, of course. What were the rules of engagement? What were the circumstances? Were these all WVR? BVR? We do know that the Aggressor pilots have had a lot of experience dogfighting (and mostly losing) to the F-22, so they may have been a little more ready for the F-35 than one might otherwise expect.
Pilot impressions of the Lightning II continue to be positive. The situational awareness is better than anything else in the sky, and unsurprisingly, pilots love being able to see and know more. No complaints about the aircraft have emerged. Also, it’s done great on the flightline. No F-35s have missed a sortie for maintenance problems, and the planes report a 92% mission readiness rate. Most legacy aircraft have a 70-85% mission readiness rate.
So despite the problems, many of which do not affect the -A variant, we can see that the Lightning is doing well in unscripted exercises. It’s a very good sign for the program.
And no, we do not expect the program to be cancelled as part of President Trump’s review.