The much maligned F-35 did very well at the February 2017 Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. In fact the F-35 dominated the skies. When paired with F-22 the kill ratio may have been as high 17:1.
In the past few months reading through news stories about the F-35 I wondered why the F-35 was denigrated in the US, but Australians and Europeans were so impressed by this aircraft. The F-35 is available for purchase by American allies, the F-22 is not. The Red Flag exercises provided the answers to that question.
In the first day of sorties during Red Flag not a single F-35 was lost to “enemy action”, and not one F-35 was grounded to mechanical or electronic malfunctions. Throughout the exercise the operational ability to keep the F-35 flying was approximately 92%.
What this means to NATO is that the Russians would not be able to support ground troops and it would allow NATO to dominate the sky. The Russian Air Force would not be able to protect Russian armored or infantry units. The Russian Air Force would have to sit on the ground, or risk being destroyed in a very short time, or confined to Russian airspace.
Running from January 23 to February 10, this year’s Red Flag involves more threats to pilots than ever before, including surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), radar jamming equipment, and an increased number of red air, or mock enemy aircraft. Against the ramped-up threats, the F-35A only lost one aircraft for every 15 aggressors killed, according to Aviation Week.
The F-35 Lightning II’s advanced avionics software was the star of the show, as multiple F-35s successfully compiled data into a detailed layout of the battlefield with each individual threat pinpointed. The stealthy aircraft could then slip into weak spots in the defensive layout and take out SAM targets, opening up the space for follow-on forces of legacy fighters. Even when the F-35s ran out of munitions, F-22 and fourth-generation fighter pilots wanted the aircraft to remain in the combat zone, soaking up data and porting target info to the older fighters.
Before where we would have one advanced threat and we would put everything we had—F-16s, F-15s, F-18s, missiles—we would shoot everything we had at that one threat just to take it out, Lt. Col. George Watkins, 34th Fighter Squadron commander, told Aviation Week. Now we are seeing three or four of those threats at a time.
The F-35 and the F-22 Raptor pair up to make a particularly deadly team, according to the pilots. The Raptor uses its advanced air maneuverability to shield the F-35 from airborne threats while the F-35 relays data to the F-22 to paint a clear picture of the battlefield. Once the duo of fifth-generation fighters take out an initial wave of ground and air targets, F-18s, F-16s, and F-15s bring up the rear to provide support, all receiving target data from the F-35s in the field.