The semi-annual Air Force exercise Red Flag marked a historic milestone in July when three different variations of U.S. fifth-generation fighter aircraft trained together, offering insights into what aerial warfare may look like in the not-so-distant future.
Held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, the exercise featured for the first time both the Air Force and Marine Corps variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and F-35As from the Air Force's 58th Fighter Squadron converging to train with aircraft from more than 50 units across the Defense Department, including the Air Force's other 5th-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor.
In a media panel July 26, two days before the 18-day exercise wrapped up, squadron commanders and exercise planners described how the aircraft fell into roles that highlighted their operational strengths, simulating the way they would be used together in a real fight.
While officials have reported that previous Red Flag exercises demonstrated the F-35's dominance in air-to-air kills -- F-35As wrapped up an exercise at the beginning of this year with a 20:1 kill ratio -- this Red Flag iteration kept the two squadrons of Joint Strike Fighters focused on other missions, including air interdiction, dynamic targeting, and suppression of enemy air defenses.
"What we found with the F-35 is, it is a very flexible platform and we were able to do a lot of different mission sets, although our primary mission is the air-to-ground focus," said Lt. Col. John Snyder, commander of the 58th Fighter Squadron. "We can do the air-to-air escort role, but the F-22 specifically is designed to dominate in that arena. So when we have F-22s here, that's how we're going to try to employ them."
Snyder said the aircraft had nonetheless done a few escort missions, though he couldn't speak to kill ratios or other metrics of success on those missions.
"The absolutely amazing thing about the F-35 aircraft is its ability to be flexible in all those mission sets," he said. "It has a tremendous avionics suite ... and we've been able to leverage that here in this very high-end training environment in order to essentially capitalize on those avionics capabilities there."
He added, "I think as a fifth-gen [fighter], just like the F-22, we are a force enabler and we've been able to essentially work with the other fourth-generation aircraft as well as the other domains that are here in order to really enable everybody to be more successful in that environment."
Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, stand by as a pilot conducts preflight checks in an F-35B Lightning II on the first day of Red Flag 17-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on July 10. Sgt. Lillian Stephens/Marine Corps
Both F-35 squadrons set out to fly eight sorties a day, and both reported high mission-capable rates, the squadron commanders said. While some technical issues described as minor had forced the units to make use of backup aircraft on several occasions, neither squadron had to cancel a sortie due to maintenance issues.
The biggest barrier to training during the exercise proved to be the weather, with thunderstorms and lightning at one point forcing the cancellation of a full day of missions.
Training together for the first time, the commanders of the F-35 squadrons said the exercise provided them an opportunity to work on communication and test the ability of the variants to integrate. The process was helped, Snyder said, by the recent implementation of common tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTPs, for all three aircraft variants within the Joint Strike Fighter program.
"We've never gotten to integrate with the Marine Corps previously," Snyder said. "On night one, [I] met my F-35B fellow flight lead, who was in for the mission planning process, and we basically compared notes for like, two seconds, and realized we were on the exact same page, operating off the exact same TTPs. ... And it's amazing, it was really cool to see that all come together."
Two Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “Wake Island Avengers,” 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, walk away from the flight line after inspecting F-35B Lightning IIs at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on July 5. Sgt. Lillian Stephens/Marine Corps
For the Marine Corps, which has not sent F-35s to Red Flag for several years, the exercise provided a valuable opportunity to train jointly, especially for the younger pilots, said Lt. Col. Chad Vaughn, commander of VMFA-211.
"We do a lot of training with the Marine Corps on a daily basis, but Red Flag gives us the opportunity to work with our sister services and see how they do things and tackle problems, and really how we take that back and we disseminate that through the Marine Corps as well," he said. "So it's not us that's learning the lesson, it's really the Marine Corps getting better as well."
While communication and information-sharing did not present issues for the F-35s, officials said, frustrations remain with the F-22. Because the F-22 was built with a datalink system that is non-compatible with the F-35's Multi-Function Advanced Datalink system, or MADL, it can receive data from the Joint Strike Fighter -- as well as fourth-generation fighters -- through its legacy Link 16 system, but cannot share data in kind.
For Red Flag, much of the communication was done the old-fashioned way: through voice comms.
It remains unclear when the issue between the aircraft will be fixed.
"I know there's a lot of effort being put into that to try to bridge that gap for a datalink," Vaughn said.