Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighters coordinated close air support with Navy SEALs, trained with F-15Es and A-10s, dropped laser-guided bombs and practiced key mission sets and tactics in Idaho as part of initial preparations for what will likely be its first deployment within several years, senior service officials said.
"We are practicing taking what would be a smaller contingent of jets and moving them to another location and then having them employ out of that location," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, Director, F-35 Integration Office told Scout Warrior in an interview.
While the Marine Corps has publically said it plans to deploy its Short-Take-off-and-Landing F-35B aboard an amphibious assault ship by 2017, the Air Force has been reluctant thus far to specify a deployment date for its F-35A variant.
However, Harrigian did say the Air Force plane would likely deploy within several years and pointed to recent mini-deployments of 6 F-35As from Edwards AFB in Calif., to Mountain Home AFB in Idaho as key evidence of its ongoing preparations.
"They dropped 30-bombs – 20 laser-guided bombs and 10 JDAMS (Joint Direct Attack Munitions). All of them were effective. We are trying to understand not only how we understand the airplane in terms of ordnance but also those tactics, techniques and procedures we need to prepare," Harrigian explained.
During the exercises at Mountain Home AFB, the F-35A also practiced coordinating communications such as target identification, radio and other command and control functions with 4th-generation aircraft such as the F-15E, he added.
The training exercises in Idaho were also the first "real" occasion to test the airplane's ability to use its computer system called the Autonomic Logistic Information System, or ALIS. The Air Force brought servers up to Mountain Home AFB to practice maintaining data from the computer system.
A report in the Air Force Times indicated that lawmakers have expressed some concerns about the development of ALIS, which has been plagued with developmental problems such as maintenance issues and problems referred to as "false positives."
"This is a new piece of the weapons system. It has been challenging and hard. You have all this data about your airplanes. We learned some things that we were able to do in a reasonable amount of time," Harrigian said.
F-35A "Sensor Fusion"
The computer system is essential to what F-35 proponents refer to as "sensor fusion," a next-generation technology which combines and integrates information from a variety of sensors onto a single screen. As a result, a pilot does not have to look at separate displays to calculate mapping information, targeting data, sensor input and results from a radar warning receiver.
Harrigian added that his "fusion" technology allows F-35A pilots to process information and therefore make decisions faster than a potential enemy. He explained how this bears upon the historic and often referred to OODA Loop – a term to connote the Observation Orientation, Decision, Action cycle that fighter pilots need to go through in a dogfight or combat engagement in order to successfully destroy the enemy. The OODA-Loop concept was developed by former Air Force strategist Col. John Boyd; it has been a benchmark of fighter pilot training, preparation and tactical mission execution.
"As we go in and start to target the enemy, we are maximizing the capabilities of our jets. The F-35 takes all that sensor input and gives it to you in one picture. Your ability to make decisions quicker that the enemy is exponentially better than when we were trying to put it all together in a 4th generation airplane. You are arriving already in a position of advantage," Harrigian explained.
Also, the F-35 is able to fire weapons such as the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile "off boresight," meaning it can destroy enemy targets at different angles of approach that are not necessarily directly in front of the aircraft.
"Before you get into an engagement you will have likely already shot a few missiles at the enemy," Harrigian said.
The F-35s Electro-Optical Targeting System, or EOTS, combines forward-looking infrared and infrared search and track sensor technology for pilots – allowing them to find and track targets before attacking with laser and GPS-guided precision weapons.
The EOTs system is engineered to work in tandem with a technology called the Distributed Aperture System, or DAS, a collection of six cameras strategically mounted around the aircraft to give the pilot a 360-degree view.
The DAS includes precision tracking, fire control capabilities and the ability to warn the pilot of an approaching threat or missile.
The F-35 is also engineered with an Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar which is able to track a host of electromagnetic signals, including returns from Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR. This paints a picture of the contours of the ground or surrounding terrain and, along with Ground Moving Target Indicator, or GMTI, locates something on-the-move on the ground and airborne objects or threats.
F-35A Joint Strike Fighter Deployment
The Air Force plans to announce what's called Initial Operational Capability, or IOC, of its F-35A at some point between August and December of this year; seven F-35As are preparing for this at Hill AFB, Utah.
There is an operational unit at Hill AFB which, this coming June, is slated to go to Mountain Home for its training and preparation. They are the 34th Fighter Squadron
"All of this is part of a robust schedule of activities," Harrigian added.
Following this development, the F-35A will be ready for deployment, Harrigian explained.
Once deployed, the F-35 will operate with an advanced software drop known as "3F" which will give the aircraft an ability to destroy enemy air defenses and employ a wide range of weapons.
Full operational capability will come with Block 3F, service officials said.
Block 3F will increase the weapons delivery capacity of the JSF as well, giving it the ability to drop a Small Diameter Bomb, 500-pound JDAM and AIM 9X short-range air-to-air missile, Air Force officials said.
As per where the initial squadron might deploy, Harrigian said that would be determined by Air Combat Command depending upon operational needs at that time. He did, however, mention the Pacific theater and Middle East as distinct possibilities.
"Within a couple years, I would envision they will take the squadron down range. Now, whether they go to Pacific Command or go to the Middle East – the operational environment and what happens in the world will drive this. If there is a situation where we need this capability and they are IOC – then Air Combat Command is going to take a hard look at using these aircraft," he said.