The USAF Weapons School is implementing a three-phase plan to build F-35 “patch wearers” needed for the first operational Joint Strike Fighter squadrons, officials told Air Force Magazine. During the first phase of the plan, which is now approved by Air Combat Command, USAF will bring weapons officers from other aircraft to attend an “F-35 transition course.” The officers will then move to the 16th Weapons Squadron at the USAFWS for two years during the second phase, before finally going to Hill AFB, Utah, where they will help bring the first operational F-35s online. The second, so-called “seasoning” phase, is critical because it will leverage lessons from the school’s F-22 standup effort, and will allow F-35 weapons officers to become tactical experts before they arrive at operational units, officials said. During this phase weapons officers will fly both sorties as part of the 16th WPS and 442nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, and participate in simulator sessions to help develop and write F-35 tactics. The involvement of 16th WPS weapons officers in tactics development will provide “unique knowledge” of the necessary skill set for F-35 pilots and how to teach those skills, said Lt. Col. David Epperson, the 16th WPS commander.
The Air Force overall reduced its size by 120 aircraft in fiscal year 2021, but kept about the same number of fighter, bomber and attack aircraft, according to data supplied by the service. The F-35 fleet saw the biggest increase while the B-1B bomber fleet saw the largest decline.