The Air Force’s version of the F-35 Lightning II, the F-35A, has officially been deployed to the Middle East. In the air, the F-35A is supposed to be the most capable variant of the plane, and it has been sent to a base used to generate sorties against ISIS. The base is also well-positioned to support potential U.S. operations in Iran or across the Middle East.
The planes have been sent to the 4th Fighter Wing at Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates. The base is too far from Syria for warplanes to reach it without aerial refueling, so it may seem like an odd place from which to attack ISIS. But with the help of aerial tankers, planes like the F-22 and F-35 can take off from there, refuel in the air, and then hit targets across Iraq and Syria before heading from home.
And the F-35A has all the stealth features and sensors of the other F-35 variants without any of the airframe compromises made by the Marine Corps and Navy to help their versions take off from carriers and amphibious assault ships.
So, while the Marine Corps’ F-35B has already made its first combat sortie against the Taliban, and the Navy is focusing on incorporating the F-35C into its own carrier fleet and those of allies, the F-35A could become a frontline and regular attacker against elements of ISIS and other terror groups when they rear their ugly heads for attacks or training.U.S. Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II arrives for first Middle East deployment
(U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury)
While ISIS has been defeated territorially, U.S. Central Command believes there are tens of thousands of fighters operating in sleeper cells or other groupings across the Middle East, including in Syria. The F-35A could help other planes spot and target those forces while avoiding triggering the air defenses of countries like Syria.
And Al Dhafra is well positioned for potential future fights as well. The base is less than 200 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz, an important trade chokepoint highly susceptible to Iranian interference. And the Iranian capital of Tehran is actually closer to Al Dhafra than Syria is. F-35As and F-22s would be key to defeating Russia-provided air defenses in Iran if America went to war with that country.
Of course, the Air Force has not said exactly what it plans to do with the F-35As at Al Dhafra. The F-35A was declared combat-ready by the flying service in 2016, but the Air Force has focused on improving the plane’s capabilities and commanders’ understanding of it rather than rushing it into combat.
And that makes a lot of sense. The F-35 is famously the most expensive weapons program in history, partially due to just how ambitious the program was from the outset. Its most advanced stealth capabilities, both the passive elements like its coating and physical design as well as its active protections like electronic warfare capabilities, are aimed at advanced adversaries like China.
It’s just not fiscally prudent to spend a lot of expensive F-35 flight hours over Syria where less-advanced airplanes can safely perform. But some stick time there could help season pilots in their planes, allowing them to be more effective in a future fight.
But still, don’t expect to see too many details of too many F-35A missions in combat anytime soon. Even if the Air Force sends them into combat in the coming days, the service will likely want to play the cards close to the chest to prevent Russian air defenses from getting too good of a look at the plane. The more chances that S-400s and similar systems get to look at the F-35, the better their operators will become at tracking and targeting them.
And if the F-35A is flown against Russia or China, we’ll want those operators caught as flat-footed as possible.