F -35As and Airmen with the 34th Fighter Squadron were flying in a Phase II exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, in October 2019 when the order came.
“I got recalled by the command post while I was airborne to return to base and land,” recalled Lt. Col. Aaron Cavazos, commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron. “As a commander, that normally means somebody got hurt or we’re being deployed. It ended up being that we were heading out for AFCENT (Air Forces Central Command) on a short-notice tasking. A couple weeks later, we had people flying combat sorties.”
Hill is the Air Force’s only operational F-35 base in the continental U.S.” Eielson AFB, Alaska, recently received F-35s. Hill’s two fighter wings—the Active-duty 388th and the Reserve 419th—have had F-35s flying combat operations in the Middle East consistently since April 2019, with the 421st Fighter Squadron taking over after the 34th left in June 2020, resuming the fifth-generation role in theater as F-22s headed home for much-needed maintenance in early 2019.
We proved that with the F-35, we can carry out a variety of mission sets.Lt. Col. Aaron Cavazos, commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron
The deployments have evolved from primarily focusing on airstrikes and close air support in the fight against Islamic State group, to protecting U.S. naval assets in the Persian Gulf and flying deterrence missions as tensions increased with Iran—missions more aligned with the aircraft’s unique capabilities.
“We proved that with the F-35, we can carry out a variety of mission sets,” Cavazos said of his unit’s deployment. “The requirements in CENTCOM go from close air support, all the way to opposed offensive and defensive counterair and maritime support in the swing of a single day. You have to be ready for everything. We were doing everything from strafing in close air support, which wouldn’t normally compute in your brain with the capabilities a fifth-generation fighter brings, to running maritime escort for carrier strike groups.”
In the early hours of Jan. 8, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, with the bulk striking al Asad Air Base where more than 100 troops suffered traumatic brain injuries. The strike was in retaliation for a U.S. drone attack in Iraq that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and an architect of proxy attacks throughout the Middle East. After the attack, Iranian forces allegedly tracked six U.S. F-35s near Iran’s borders, spooking air defense crews to the point that one crew shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner by accident.
Just six months before, Iran shot down an American RQ-4A Global Hawk BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator) remotely piloted aircraft over the Strait of Hormuz, where it was flying reconnaissance for U.S. vessels in the region. Soon after, the U.S. military prepared to respond with strikes on Iran, but that strike was abruptly called off at the last moment by President Donald J. Trump.
“It is no surprise that the aircraft were deployed during periods of heightened tension within the Middle East,” said Brig. Gen. David W. Abba, the director of the Air Force’s F-35 Integration Office. “All I can tell you is that our aircrew and our jets were ready to respond on a moment’s notice.”
The public deployment of the F-35, and AFCENT’s public discussion of how it is using its air power, shows growing confidence in the aircraft. Although USAF F-35s had been deployed consistently for 15 months, it wasn’t until July that F-35s went on alert status in theater. Until then, F-35 sorties were operating only as part of the air tasking order out of the Combined Air Operations Center—strikes or combat patrols planned in advance with a clear mission. Now, after proof-of-concept exercises, F-35s are ready at a moment’s notice to respond to immediate threats.
“This hasn’t been done before with F-35s and operational control, or at [Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates] with F-35s,” Lt. Col. Stephen Redmond, commander of the squadron, said in an announcement. “It effectively adds another capability or tool in leadership’s toolkit for how to deter, defend, or respond to events in the region.”
CENTCOM boss Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., described the command’s posture in June as “… designed to deter Iran from acting either indirectly or directly against United States, partner, or coalition forces in theater.” The aim, he added, is “to convince them that, should they contemplate some malign activity, the cost of doing so would be greater than any object they might achieve by carrying out that action.”
F-35s have also proved to be effective bombers againsttheIslamic State group.During the 4th Fighter Squadron’s deployment, from April to November 2019, the unit flew 1,300 combat sorties, totaling about 7,300 combat hours, and deployed about 150 weapons with no malfunctions.
“Really remarkable,” Abba said. “We didn’t have any bad bombs that were attributable to either aircrew error or to weapon system malfunction.”
Within two weeks of arriving at Al Dhafra in 2019, the jets attacked an IS group tunnel network with Joint Direct Attack Munitions. By comparison, F-22s were introduced in the Middle East five years before conducting their first strike, Abba said.
In September 2019 the 4th Fighter Squadron’s F-35s joined F-15Es in a massive strike, dropping more than 80,000 pounds of bombs on the IS forces in Qanus Island in the Euphrates River.
On another mission on an undisclosed date, two F-35As flying on an air tasking order sortie in the region sensed a surface-to-air missile system from “really far away,” Abba said. The pilots were able to geolocate it and take a radar map of its location for targetable coordinates. Although they did not strike it that day, the data was passed along to command and control and the Intelligence Community. Abba calls this “drive by ISR.”
“The ability of this aircraft to find targets of value even when that’s not what it was specifically tasked to go after is absolutely remarkable,” Abba said.
Readiness also impressed Abba. The 4th Fighter Squadron’s maintainers managed a 70 percent mission capable rate at first for the squadron’s 12 Lightning IIs, but improved over time.
“They brought a truly representative set of maintainers that finished that deployment over 90 percent,” Abba said.
That’s particularly impressive given the challenges maintainers have had overall with the F-35. In 2019, the fleetwide mission capable rate for F-35s was 61.6 percent, about 10 percent lower than legacy fighters.
When the 34th replaced the 4th in October, the unit split its aircraft between Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates and an undisclosed location for about three months. It was the F-35’s first-ever sustained agile combat deployment.
“It gave us the ability to project power across thousands of miles and numerous countries from a single fighter unit,” Cavazos said. “This has numerous implications to every single combatant command.”
Major bases such as Al Dhafra and others in Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, are known entities and other countries expect USAF forces to operate there.
“They know it. We know it,” Cavazos said. Being able to operate from austere locations adds “unpredictability against potential adversaries” to commanders’ options. “Now we proved we can be more agile. That principal can carry over operationally to other regions and any potential adversaries there. We took away some lessons, and we’re only going to get better at it.”
Like the 4th before it, the 34th kept its planes flying, not dropping a single sortie due to maintenance during the deployment, said Capt. Susan McLeod, the officer in charge of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
That wasn’t easy, said Senior Master Sgt. Westley Calloway, the lead production superintendent with the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “We had to think creatively to solve logistics and communication challenges, because in a lot of ways, we’re writing the playbook. But once those chains are established, we were able to maintain the health of our fleet and complete every task asked of us.”
The squadron returned home in May and early June and were replaced by Hill’s newest unit, the 421st Fighter Squadron, which stood up just months before, in December 2019.
“This demonstrates the readiness of our Airmen, our weapons system, and the importance of both to the Air Force and our national defense mission,” said Col. Steven Behmer, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing, when the squadron deployed.
While the F-35 has been cutting its teeth in combat in the Middle East, that’s not the mission the Air Force envisions for the jet long-term, Abba said.
“We did not buy this aircraft for the Middle East fight … this weapon system is optimized to the near-peer competition that is articulated in the National Defense Strategy,” Abba continued. “Make no bones about it. This aircraft is the preeminent suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses platform, and that’s what we need to optimize it for.”
Hill’s combat deployments are helping prepare for those more demanding missions, especially in terms of maintenance. In the combat environment, maintainers are under pressure to keep planes ready, and they continue to struggle with the jet’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS)—a comprehensive, complex computer system intended to track flight data and maintenance information. Maintainers across the service have long complained the system is slow, buggy, and cumbersome, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in July that ALIS is even worse when deployed.
“Taking ALIS on a deployment can be challenging because the required hardware is bulky to transport, internet connectivity is frequently limited, and significant advanced planning is required,” the GAO wrote.
ALIS will be replaced beginning late this year with a new system, the Operational Data Integrated Network, developed cooperatively by the Air Force’s Kessel Run software coding group, the 309th Software Engineering Group, and Lockheed Martin.
For operators, it will be a boon. “What we’re focused on is minimizing touch points … to do things like accelerate combat turn times, so that we can get the aircraft back in the fight faster,” Abba said. “We don’t want the IT system supporting the aircraft to be the long pole in the tent for combat sortie generation timelines.”
In a large-scale conflict, “we’re going to need to generate more sorties more rapidly, with quicker turns for the airplanes, and more sorties in a day … than we’re seeing in the Central Command area of responsibility right now,” Abba said.
Missions are also longer than originally anticipated.
“When we bought the airplane … the sortie-duration requirement isn’t that long,” Abba said. “We weren’t talking about flying seven-hour sorties in CENTCOM. And that’s what we’re doing. That creates its own unique challenges with pilot flight equipment, with comfort in the seat, and those kinds of things. And those are things that we’re working through out there.”
Even as they fly combat missions, F-35 testing continues and several deficiencies must still need to be addressed before full-rate production begins. As of December 2019, nine category one deficiencies—those that could cause injury or damage or loss of aircraft—remained. Another 861 category two deficiencies must also be resolved, a process that could take years.
The GAO report warned that even deployed aircraft don’t meet the F-35 Joint Program Office’s overall reliability and maintainability goals. Ultimately, they will need retrofits to fix the issues.
But for those who deployed with the F-35, their recent combat experience proved both the jets’ and their own capabilities.
“We didn’t leave anyone behind, and I had guys straight from the basic F-35 course who got to see live combat, see how joint operations work, and the unpredictability of warfare,” Cavazos said. “This experience is only going to help them going forward. It was a confidence booster and that perspective will improve how they train back home.
“Operationally, we’re becoming our own F-35 community. We aren’t just a hodgepodge of pilots from other airframes anymore. It’s really cool to have that experience with the younger guys in the squadron and see them progress on their first deployment.”