The F-35A premiered at Red Flag this month, marking the first time the US Air Force’s Lightning Strike variant participated in the training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

The F-35s coordinated with EA-18G Growlers, F-15Cs, F-16s, F-22s, B-1 bombers, British Typhoons and Australian airborne early warning and control E-7A Wedgetails. Overall, the Joint Strike Fighter communicated with more than 60 aircraft including various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.

With the inclusion of the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) and Link 16, the F-35 was able to share one threat picture across 70 aircraft, Lt Col Dave DeAngelis, commander of the 419th operations group says. Where threats were communicated via radio on legacy aircraft, MADL saves time by communicating with the F-35’s wingman, he says.


The USAF told reporters the F-35’s 15 to 1 kill ratio recorded during its Nellis exercises had improved, but could not say by how much. The service does not yet have a tally of F-35s hit by integrated air defenses or surface to air missiles, but the action report with those details should release in about a month, the USAF adds.

“The F-35 mission was to get in undetected and hit targets, so we weren’t there specifically for air to air role,” Lt Col George Watkins, commander, 34th fighter squadron says. “Our ratio has gotten better but I don’t have the final numbers. We saw an improvement in our pilot’s proficiency throughout Red Flag and that number was just F-35 kills and depth.”

Since its last Red Flag exercise at Nellis two weeks prior, the USAF turned up the heat on its F-35As with more advanced SAMs. The service also leveraged some blue forces to fly on the red side to increase threat numbers, Lt Col John Wagemann, director of operations for 414th combat training squadron says. At its peak, more than 20 red aircraft flew against blue forces, he says.

The USAF at large has a need for more adversary forces in training environments and recently posted a request for proposals seeking out additional contracted red air. Until the air force gains that extra iron in the sky though, the service is making Red Flag more challenging for blue forces by improvising. Once red forces were killed during the Red Flag event at Hill, those same aircraft returned “alive” to the fight later, Wagemann says.