In February or early March, a combat-coded F-35A from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill AFB will release an inert, laser-guided bomb at the nearby Utah Test and Training Range.
What will seem ordinary and routine to the pilot will actually be a “monumental achievement” for the multinational F-35 programme, which has been building to this moment since Lockheed Martin won the Joint Strike Fighter contract in 2001.
A stealthy, jet-powered combat aircraft is nothing if it cannot put weapons on a target, and this GBU-12 Paveway II release will be a moment of truth for the conventional A-model, which until now only released weapons in development and operational testing.
Reserve pilot Maj Jayson Rickard of the 466th Fighter Squadron flew Hill AFB's 100th F-35 sortie on 11 December
US Air Force
The air force’s Block 3i aircraft will first operate with basic laser and GPS-guided weapons, as well as beyond-visual-range AIM-120 air-to-air missiles. It will also have advanced targeting, surveillance and radar-jamming equipment.
The full complement of weapons will not arrive until Block 3F in late 2017, but the armaments the F-35 does have in Block 2B and 3i can accomplish basic close air support, air interdiction and suppression or destruction of enemy air defence missions, according to the air force.
“It is a monumental achievement, because we are the first operational unit to do it. But quite frankly, I don’t expect it to be a difficult achievement for us to accomplish,” says Col David Lyons, commander of the squadron’s parent wing, the 388th Fighter Wing. “It will be an ordinary mission. They will be inert, at least initially.
“The airplane can already simulate the drop, so we simulate firing the AIM-120 and dropping laser-guided and GPS-guided bombs every day as we practice our tactics, but to actually have something come off the airplane – we’ve not done that yet.”
Introducing weapons into live training is one of several steps the squadron must take to be deemed combat-ready on 1 August, which marks initial operational capability (IOC) for the conventional takeoff and landing model. The US Marine Corps achieved IOC with the F-35B jump jet in July.
Because F-35s are designed to operate in formation, Lyons says the squadron will begin practicing “four-ship” combat tactics in March, where four airborne F-35s will train together. The 34th Fighter Sqn has been practicing four-ship tactics in its four Lockheed-built 360° mission simulators since they were networked in December.
The base's first F-35A touched down on 2 September
US Air Force
Since activating in July, the “Rude Rams” squadron has received five aircraft from Lockheed, and the sixth is due shortly. The group expects to have 12-16 aircraft and 24 mission-ready pilots in place by IOC.
Pilots arrive from the training bases at Luke AFB in Arizona and Eglin AFB in Florida as trained F-35 aviators, but are qualified on the latest combat tactics at their local base.
Today, the 388th wing counts eight IOC-ready pilots and another one is assigned to its partner reserve unit, the 419th Fighter Wing. Its growing fleet is supported by 260 maintainers.
The aircraft will receive the most up-to-date 3i software load, and Lyons says that will arrive on 1 February.
The local autonomic logistics information system (ALIS), which manages the logistics and maintenance programme, is also being upgraded. “We expect to have it in a deployable configuration in a couple of months,” says Lt Col Darrin Dronoff, who heads the 388th unit's F-35 integration office.
The 421st Fighter Squadron, an F-16 unit at Hill AFB, is on its final combat deployment to Afghanistan. "Black Widows" is the third F-16 squadron in line to convert to F-35s after the 4th Fighter Squadron
US Air Force
The first real test of the squadron’s ability to deploy abroad will begin in a few months, starting with simulated deployment exercises on-ramp at Hill, says 34th unit commander Lt Col George Watkins.
“We’re going to take F-35s from the 34th Fighter Squadron and go to Mountain Home AFB in Idaho,” Watkins tells Flightglobal. “We’re going to fly missions from Mountain Home as our proof of being able to go out on the road and fly missions from the road.
“We’ll come back from that and continue our spin up to full proficiency with a surge in July where we’ll fly extra sorties in a surge week, so in the month of July we have enough sorties programmed to get everyone up to combat-mission status by 1 August.”
Lyons and Watkins are both confident of achieving IOC on 1 August, and the wing has even invited the Air Combat Command inspector general to monitor the process.
Lyons expects the F-35A will be called up fairly quickly, perhaps in 2017 or 2018, although there are no deployments currently scheduled.
“It would not surprise me at all to see the airplane used in that time frame,” Lyons says. “I don’t make that decision; it’s above my pay grade. But once the airplane is declared IOC, it will be available to use, and I would expect them to use it.”
US Air Force