More F-35 Joint Strike Fighters May Soon Be Headed to Eglin Air Force Base

Airmen 1st Class Griffin Smith and William Manion, both 33rd Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuels system repairman apprentices, don safety gear to prepare an F-35A Lightning II for maintenance at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Jan. 13, 2016. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Andrea Posey)
Airmen 1st Class Griffin Smith and William Manion, both 33rd Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuels system repairman apprentices, don safety gear to prepare an F-35A Lightning II for maintenance at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Jan. 13, 2016. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Andrea Posey)

The U.S. Air Force is weighing the addition of another F-35 Joint Strike Fighter squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, possibly as soon as 2020, has learned.

The plus-up would give additional resources to the busiest Air Force F-35 training wing, providing pilots necessary, enhanced equipment currently lacking in the pipeline, according to the head of the training wing.

"There are ongoing discussions to increase the aircraft at the 33rd Fighter Wing, to put additional aircraft and missions [here]," said Col. Paul Moga, commander of the fighter wing, which is part of Air Education and Training Command.

The hope is the wing will receive 24 jets with the latest software, Block 3F, in addition to upgrading the current fleet of fighters at the base, he said.

The boost would not only give incoming pilots much newer stealth aircraft to train with, but also offer other improvements, due to the more advanced software and newer planes.

"The reliability, the sustainability, the maintainability, and a lot of the maintenance practices for troubleshooting [all of that] gets significantly better ...and we'll see a clear and quantifiable increase in all of our performance and maintenance metrics," Moga said in an interview Friday.

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He first spoke with in May when Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson visited the base. At that time, he was concerned the wing needed help to relieve the pressures of training student pilots with insufficient resources.

As a result of "blunt" conversation, officials at the wing have worked with top Air Force leaders, the F-35 Joint Program Office and F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin to get supplies needed keep up with training demands.

Since May, "We did see some additional parts and support flow our way," Moga said, adding that it has since slowed because spare parts for the oldest F-35s simply don't exist anymore.

Although the F-35 is the Pentagon's newest and most advanced aircraft, the oldest Joint Strike Fighters in the fleet reside at Eglin. The planes are part of Lockheed's earliest low-rate initial production batches.

"We can show up with a suitcase full of money and order the parts, but a lot of them have long lead times -- 12 to 24 months -- to go to the subcontractor, pay them, get them to machine it and then get them to deliver the parts," Moga said. He did not specify which parts are needed.

It puts the 33rd Fighter Wing at a crossroads, he said. The service can put in the request to have the parts manufactured, or it can wait for the current fleet to be upgraded.

"A lot of the parts we need now, we might not need in two years when our aircraft are upgraded," Moga said. "I think we're going to continue with some brute force maintenance to get the most out of the jets in the configuration that they're in now. And then over time, the Air Force has committed to upgrading our fleet."

Upgrades Ahead

The wing's current aircraft have some of the oldest Block 2B software. But the more advanced Block 3F is on the way, Moga said.

"We'll start [the process] early next year, and it's going to take a couple of years," he said, adding that there is also discussion about upgrading the fleet to the Block 4 software -- the latest software upgrade for the F-35's avionics and weapons delivery. No changes are imminent, however.

The first F-35s from Eglin will enter depot maintenance for the software and mission systems upgrades in a phased approach. It could take weeks or months to configure each jet, so the 33rd has synced any other maintenance work already on the schedule to coincide with the software upgrades. Moga said this will limit how long aircraft are at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, which houses the Ogden Air Logistics Complex.

"We have to be very smart and deliberate about how we schedule these upgrades … I can't afford to take six aircraft off the line at the same time, because I won't be able to fill my training requirements," he said.

Reiterating previous comments, Moga said he has not seen a dramatic shift in training for student pilots with older aircraft, because training for the "near-peer" threat has always been a part of the curriculum.

"We have been focused on a near-peer adversary training with these airframes, whether it be the F-22 [Raptor] or the F-35," he said. "If we trained to a lower level with these highly capable aircraft, we're underutilizing them and it's not challenging for [the students]."

Training to Date

The Air Force's original vision for the 33rd Fighter Wing was different, with a planned five squadrons, including three Air Force, one Marine Corps and one Navy.

Today, the fighter wing maintains 25 F-35As. The Navy, which sends pilots through its own training pipeline at the base, keeps eight F-35Cs on station.

The fifth-generation stealth plane arrived at Eglin in 2011 and made the 33rd Fighter Wing the first U.S. F-35 training unit under Air Education and Training Command. The first class of student pilots started training in 2013.

Three years into the flight and development courses, 80 percent of flights were focused on pilot development and instructor pilot development, while 20 percent focused on producing students.

Now, "85 to 90 percent of all the flights that we fly are solely dedicated to producing new F-35 pilots, and 15 to 10 percent we allocate to instructor pilot development," Moga said.

He said the courses offered at Eglin have produced roughly 200 Air Force pilots to date, but Luke Air Force Base is on track to outpace Eglin's training production.

Luke's curriculum requires students to train for eight months, more than double the time of pilots training at Eglin. But it also has an academic training center, offering courses such as the F-35 pilot "B-course;" training for those transitioning from other fighters; and an instructor pilot upgrade course, 56th Fighter Wing Maj. Rebecca Heyse previously told Luke also has a requalification course for F-35 pilots returning to flying after being out of the jet for a while, she added.

This was "fully anticipated, just because they're growing. Logistically and statistically, they'll produce more than us in [fiscal 2019]," Moga said, adding that Luke also provides foreign training programs.

Nevertheless, he believes Eglin is "acing the course, with what we've got, with one squadron of aircraft and one squadron of instructors."

With a potential buildup of fighters at the base, Moga said he doesn't foresee a large pipeline buildup that mirrors Luke's foreign training programs.

"I think Eglin will remain U.S.-only, mainly because of the complexity with our test mission," he said, referring to the base's testing ranges, including bombing ranges and the 123,000-square-mile Gulf Test Range.

The ranges have given the students a taste of what skills they need to improve on to face threats in the real world, Moga said.

"We have some really good emitters on the Eglin test and training range that we use fairly routinely, and there's ongoing discussions down here to plus that up even more," he said.

Those discussions involve putting threat emitters -- which simulate a surface-air-missile weapon -- along the Gulf coast from Eglin to Tallahassee, around the Big Bend (or Apalachee Bay in the northeastern part of the Gulf) and down to Tampa, Moga explained, roughly encompassing a 400-mile stretch.

"For the moment, we know where our contributions lie, and what we can do to facilitate and further these efforts, and we still have a few challenges to work through," said Moga, a former F-15C Eagle and F-22 pilot. "We've seen some clear improvements … we can't just sit back and be happy with where we are. We've got to keep pushing the system."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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