HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah --
The 388th Fighter Wing’s 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit and 4th Fighter Squadron were the first operational units to load and fire the F-35A’s cannon during training Aug. 13, and what they learned will influence how they train and fight.
Loading and firing the cannon was one of the few capabilities Airmen in the 388th and 419th FWs had yet to demonstrate as they continue to develop the combat capability of the Air Force’s most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft.
“Now that we’re firing live rounds, we can train based on the function of the gun, the function of the aiming system, aircraft performance and pilot skill. Not just simulate those,” said Lt. Col. Yosef Morris, 4th Fighter Squadron commander, and one of the pilots on the first strafing run.
All of those things come into play when scoring hits with a cannon, which is not a “smart” weapon, but functions just like any other “direct fire” gun once the bullets leave the barrel.
The two-ship formation fired on two sets of ground targets at the Utah Test and Training Range. Similar to target practice with a new rifle and scope on a firing range, the pilots "dialed-in" the cannon, Morris said. They learned a lot by having the direct visual feedback of firing live rounds.
Because the 388th and 419th FWs are operational units, they will perform regular combat training with the cannon and will be able to collect more data with each sortie.
“There’s a lot of complexity and pilot skill involved in employing any weapon. We’ll be (firing the cannon) on a much more regular basis and rapidly surpass what they did in testing. Our first attempt was very deliberate and controlled so we can take what we learned and use it in our academics,” Morris said.
The F-35A’s internal cannon carries 181, 25-millimeter rounds and can fire at a rate up to 50 rounds per second. Because the gun is internal, the aircraft can remain stealth in enemy airspace where other fighters and attack aircraft could not survive.
“At 25 millimeters, it’s a larger cartridge than most other fighters carry and there are various designs (armor piercing, explosive). … It’s a weapon we can employ visually and very rapidly in all of our mission sets,” said Morris, “On some missions, like close air support, it may be our primary weapon. In others, it’s our last resort. … It’s a crucial capability. ”
One big step for maintainers to deliver the capability to fire the cannon, was validating and training to use a bulk ammunition loader. They also developed emergency and weapons response programs before loading the gun.
“There was close cooperation between maintenance and operations. We tracked the aircraft through the flying day, tracked the rounds expended and solidified our maintenance processes and procedures,” said Capt. Dayna Grant, officer in charge of the 4th AMU. “This milestone allows extensive training for maintainers and pilots alike.”