Red Flag Gives F-35A its Toughest Test Yet

Defense News // February 03, 2017

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.”

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