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The Air Force Fifth-generation Team Takes Shape

Two F-22 Raptors move into the Langley Air Force Base pattern Friday, March 3, 2006 (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker)
Two F-22 Raptors move into the Langley Air Force Base pattern Friday, March 3, 2006 (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker)

HAMPTON — During the past two days at Langley Air Force Base, key fighter wing commanders have been brainstorming over a question that, for security reasons, they can't discuss in detail.

They command pilots who fly the two most modern fighters in the nation's inventory: the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning, fifth-generation stealth aircraft designed to take on other superpowers.

The question on the table for these F-22 and F-35 fighter wing commanders: How can these two aircraft best work together?

It's a complicated issue that touches on training, maintenance and combat operations. Two key participants said they spent a lot of time exploring how each fighter community could help the other.

Col. Pete Fesler commands the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley, which flies the Raptor. The first F-22 arrived at Langley in 2005 and is now a common sight in the skies over the Peninsula

He was joined during a brief media roundtable by Col. David Lyons, who commands the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, where the Air Force plans to field its first operational F-35 squadron.

In simplest terms, the F-22's main strength is taking on enemy aircraft, an air-to-air superiority fighter. The F-35's top ability is in air-to-ground operations.

However, both can do the other's job and have "complementary capabilities to assist each other in either role," Fesler said.

Lyons likened the two aircraft to an Air Force dream team.

"This is a realization of a resourcing strategy the Air Force has been putting together for a long time," he said. "It's the realization of a tactical dream, that we would have this team available to go out and do what it needs to do in the world."

Both aircraft have had significant technical challenges. In 2012, the Raptor suffered from problems that led pilots to experience symptoms of hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation. Equipment modifications addressed that problem, and now some in Congress want to restart the Raptor production line. It was stopped after 180-plus aircraft, short of what the Air Force wanted.

Likewise, the F-35 has experienced budget and schedule problems, but a story in Business Insider posted Thursday ran under the headline "The F-35 may finally be getting its act together."

It noted that the F-35's manufacturer, defense giant Lockheed Martin, had a strong earnings report this week and quoted one analyst who cited positive expectations on the F-35 program.

The Air Force program of record calls for 1,763 of the F-35s. Separate from that, Lockheed is producing a Navy version that can land on aircraft carriers, and a vertical takeoff/landing model.

Discussions at the conference included sharing maintenance knowledge and how the two communities could educate each other.

"It was an exchange of data in both directions," said Fesler. "The F-35 right now could benefit from some of the fifth-generation experience that the F-22 community has built up over the last decade or so. The F-22 community is going to benefit in the next year or two, bringing guys back from the F-35 into the F-22 to help us better understand how to integrate these two platforms."

For the Raptor community, one challenge has been getting the most out a relatively small fleet. Fesler said Raptors have trained with fourth-generation fighters, such as the F-16, but opportunities have been limited and it's taken a long time to build that knowledge base. Having more 1,700 F-35s will east that burden.

"The F-35," he said, "is going to change that equation."

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