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.
Also read: The 'Chopper Popper' scored the A-10's first air-to-air kill…against an Iraqi helicopter
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.
"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.
"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.