The F-35 may be ready for prime time
After achieving an awesome air-to-air kill ratio of 15-to-one, the F-35 trounced ground targets at the US Air Force's Red Flag exercise — and now the world's most expensive weapons system may finally be ready for the front lines.
For the first time ever, the F-35 competed against legacy aircraft and simulated surface-to-air missile batteries at "the highest level threats we know exist," according to a statement from Lt. Col. George Watkins, an F-53 squadron commander.
"Just as we're getting new systems and technology, the adversary's threats are becoming more sophisticated and capable," said Watkins, nodding to the expansive counter-stealth and anti-air capabilities built up by the Russians and Chinese over the years.
But the F-35 program has long carried the promise of delivering a plane that can outsmart, outgun, and out-stealth enemy systems, and the latest run at Red Flag seems to have vindicated the troubled 16-year long program. Not only can the F-35 operate in heavily contested airspace, which render F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s as sitting ducks, but it can get more done with fewer planes.
"I flew a mission the other day where our four-ship formation of F-35As destroyed five surface-to-air threats in a 15-minute period without being targeted once," said Maj. James Schmidt, a former A-10 pilot now flying F-35s.
Four planes taking out five SAM sites in 15 minutes represents nothing less than a quantum leap in capability for the Air Force, which prior to the F-35 would have to target threats with long-range missiles before getting close to the battle.
An F-35A Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off from Nellis AFB, Nev., Feb. 2, 2017, during Red Flag 17-01. This is the first F-35A deployment to Red Flag since the Air Force declared the jet combat ready in August 2016. | US Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw
"We would shoot everything we had at that one threat just to take it out. Now between us and the (F-22) Raptor, we are able to geo-locate them and precision target them," Watkins said, adding that F-35s are so stealthy, "we can get close enough to put a bomb right on them."
But that's only one of the multi-role F-35's jobs. After obliterating ground threats, F-35 pilots said they turned right around and started hammering air threats.
The F-35 came out of Red Flag such a ringing success that Defense News reports that the strike aircraft is now being considered at the highest levels for overseas deployments.
Airmen load a bomb into the F-35A's internal bomb bay. | US Air Force
"I think based on the data that we're hearing right now for kill ratios, hit rates with bombs, maintenance effectiveness … those things tell me that the airplane itself is performing extremely well from a mechanical standpoint and … that the proficiency and skills of the pilots is at a level that would lead them into any combat situation as required," Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, head of the Air Force's F-35 integration office told Defense News.
With that success on record, Pleus will now consider deploying a small group of six to eight F-35s overseas as part of a "theater security package" to help train and integrate with US allies.
UK and Australian contingents participated in this installment of Red Flag. Both countries plan to buy and operate the F-35 in the near future.