Air Force's F-35A Makes Combat Debut in Iraq

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A U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-35A Lightning II above an undisclosed location on April 30, 2019. The KC-10 and its crew were tasked to support aerial refueling operations for the F-35A's first air interdiction during its inaugural deployment to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command's area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski)
A U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-35A Lightning II above an undisclosed location on April 30, 2019. The KC-10 and its crew were tasked to support aerial refueling operations for the F-35A's first air interdiction during its inaugural deployment to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command's area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski)

The U.S. Air Force's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has made its combat debut in Iraq.

Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) announced Tuesday that two Lightning II stealth jets -- the most advanced fighters in the U.S. military's inventory -- were used to conduct an "airstrike using a Joint Direct Attack Munition to strike an entrenched tunnel network and a weapons cache" belonging to the Islamic State deep in the Hamrin Mountains in northeast Iraq.

The operation, conducted in Wadi Ashai, Iraq, was meant to thwart a buildup of munitions and forces that could threaten coalition fighters in the area, according to an AFCENT news release.

Earlier this month, officials said that F-35 fifth-generation fighters from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates to keep watch in the region, marking the first time Air Force F-35s have deployed to the Middle East.

"The F-35A provides our nation air dominance in any threat," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at the time of the deployment. "When it comes to having a 'quarterback' for the coalition joint force, the interoperable F-35A is clearly the aircraft for the leadership role."

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The Air Force previously deployed F-35s to England and then to the Pacific in 2017.

Officials on Tuesday said the F-35A has "joined the Combined Joint airpower team" and is part of the remaining coalition of jets maintaining air superiority or conducting strikes in the region.

"The F-35A has sensors everywhere. It has advanced radar, and it is gathering and fusing all this information from the battlespace in real time," said Lt. Col. Yosef Morris, commander of the 4th Fighter Squadron and an F-35A pilot, in the AFCENT release. "Now, it has the ability to take that information and share it with other F-35s or even other fourth-generation aircraft in the same package that can also see the integrated picture."

Last year, the Marine Corps' F-35B variant deployed for the first time to the region aboard the amphibious assault ship Essex following missions in the Pacific. It made its combat debut in Afghanistan in September.

Officials announced last May that the F-35 had made its combat debut in the Middle East after Israel's variant conducted strikes.

Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said that the Israeli F-35 aircraft, known as Adir, had "attacked twice in the Middle East using the F-35."

Israel declared initial operating capability of its Lockheed Martin-made "F-35I" -- its variant of the A-model -- in December 2017.

In November 2017, the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor stealth jet made its combat debut in Afghanistan, targeting suspected narcotics facilities in the country with small-diameter bombs.

Officials did not say Tuesday whether the F-35A's strike against ISIS was successful.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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