For the first time ever, six US Marine F-35s took part in Red Flag, a hyper realistic, three-week-long training exercise that takes place in the skies above Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
The fifth-generation jets will take part in aerial combat and close-air support drills, as well as mock war games against opposing forces as part of the exercise. Red Flag is scheduled to run from July 11 to July 29.
Red Flag represents an important test for the troubled jet, which has so far been a nightmarish project running behind and over budget. In previous simulations of combat against legacy platforms, the F-35 embarrassingly failed against F-16s.
Pilots with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 exit F-35B Lightning II's after conducting training during exercise Red Flag 16-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 20, 2016. | U.S. Lance Cpl. Harley Robinson
However, in more recent simulations, the improved F-35 simply dominated F-15s in dogfights.
The Marine pilots seem optimistic about the F-35s' prospects in the simulated combat, and they are pleased with the work it has done so far.
"We're really working on showcasing our surface-to-air capabilities," Maj. Brendan Walsh, an F-35 pilot said in a Marine Corps press release. "The F-35 is integrating by doing various roles in air-to-air and air-to-ground training."
"With the stealth capability, the biggest thing that this aircraft brings that the others do not is situational awareness," Walsh said.
Two U.S. Marine F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters complete vertical landings aboard the USS Wasp (LHD-1) during operational testing May 18, 2015. | U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Remington Hall
"The sensor sweep capability that the F-35 brings to the fight, not only builds those pictures for me, but for the other platforms as well. We're able to share our knowledge of the battle space with the rest of the participants in order to make everyone more effective."
As with any warplane, the capability of the platform is directly tied to the skill of the pilot, and exercises like Red Flag provide unparalleled opportunities to train in realistic situations. This year, the F-35 will train with F-16s, F-22s, F-18s, B-52s and other current Air Force, Army, Marine, and Navy platforms.
Lt. Col. J.T. Bardo, the commanding officer of the Marine flight squadron taking part in Red Flag said of the F-35: "If I had to go into combat, I wouldn't want to go into combat in any other airplane."