The US Air Force's 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida, received its first Block 2A configuration Lockheed Martin F-35A on 6 May. Another similarly configured aircraft is scheduled to arrive at the base later in the month.
This aircraft called, AF-25, is equipped with an initial version of the Block 2A configuration, but Eglin AFB will receive aircraft with a more advanced version of the software package later in the year, says Lt Col Lee Kloos, commander of the wing's 58th Fighter Squadron.
The squadron will receive the last of its 24 primary authorized aircraft and two backup aircraft by February 2014. Around that same time, the unit will start helping prepare the USAF's second training unit at Luke AFB, Arizona, which is expected to start receiving F-35As in January 2014, gear up to start training operations.
The Block 2A configuration adds new functionality to the F-35, Kloos says. The aircraft was previously only able to operate three of its six Northrop Grumman AN/AAQ-37 electro-optical distributed aperture system (DAS) infrared cameras. "This version is the first time all six cameras will be on and we'll be able to use it in flight," Kloos says. "Now, in the first release of the Block 2A software we're not going to be able to put it in the helmet yet, but we'll at least be able to turn on all of them and at least let the aircraft display the information to us on the glass."
Additionally, about a month ago, Kloos says, the wing received clearance to turn on the jet's built-in Lockheed electro-optical targeting system, which is similar to the company's Sniper targeting pod. "It was always in the [Block] 1B, we just didn't have the clearance to turn it on in flight," he says.
The initial Block 2A software release also adds a weather radar mode, which though not tactically significant, is very useful flying around Eglin AFB especially as thunderstorm season approaches, Kloos says. The jet is not yet cleared for instrument meteorological conditions.
Aircraft at Eglin AFB have also activated some simulated weapons capabilities and radar modes which were installed with Block 1B. "We've been able to load up simulated weapons and employ them," Kloos says. "Even in the -1B syllabus, we started doing air-to-air training and air-to-surface training."
Training is still pretty basic-mostly tactical intercepts and basic simulated Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM shots, but no air combat maneuvering. "We don't have the envelope for that yet," Kloos says-the jet is still restricted to 5.5G.
Air-to-surface training is more developed because the F-35's multiple sensors and simulated GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and GBU-31 inertially-guided GPS-corrected weapons. "You can actually get a pretty decent scenario," Kloos says. "The radar is very robust in air-to-air as well so you can actually start to get to opposed SAT [Surface Attack Tactics]-type scenarios with the base capabilities that we have."
Even the basic synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mode of the Northrop Grumman APG-81 current operating on the F-35s at Eglin is better than what a Raytheon APG-70 on an F-15E can deliver, Kloos says. "The SAR-mapping is far better than we have on our other fighter platforms including the Strike Eagle," he says. "It's a very, very nice picture we get out of that."