HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – The 388th Fighter Wing recently participated in Agile Flag 23-1, which focuses on Air Combat Command's ability to quickly generate combat power while continuing to move, maneuver and sustain force elements in a dynamic contested environment.
Agile Flag is the most recent in a long string of 388th FW operations – from Red Flags and Checkered Flags, to last year’s EUCOM and INDOPACOM deployments, the wing’s Airmen are continuing to develop F-35A Lighting II combat capabilities.
“We’ve been practicing operating our aircraft in smaller sets, away from a main operating base for several years, said Col. Brad Bashore, 388th Operations Group commander. “We have demonstrated that we can be anywhere, very rapidly with fifth-generation airpower. That hasn’t happened overnight.”
Agile Combat Employment operations and exercises provide both pilots and maintainers lessons on communications, connectivity, maintenance, and continued confidence in the F-35’s capabilities.
“Not all of these are easy lifts, but from each opportunity we’re presented and each challenge we’ve overcome, we’ve learned the right combination of resources and people to operate remotely,” said Col. Craig Andrle, 388th Fighter Wing commander.
COMMUNICATIONS AND CONNECTIVITY
“During these exercises and deployments, we have really dispelled the myth that the F-35 needs to have constant connectivity to computers and maintenance servers,” Andrle said. “We’ve learned that the jet is very robust, and we’ve got the ability to operate disconnected.”
That’s not to say that connectivity is unimportant. Airmen here have continued to develop capabilities that meet the needs of a mobile, deployed F-35 squadron. And, there isn’t just one right answer.
“We have been continually experimenting with different forms of data transfer out on the forward edge with really small kits,” Andrle said. “In combat, we have to assume that we’ll need more than one option, whether that’s a commercial network, cellular network, satellite network. We want redundant, reliable data options and we’ve had some pretty good success with developing that.”
Since receiving the first F-35A Lightning II in 2015, maintainers in the 388th Fighter Wing have been developing blueprints for small, flexible maintenance teams to forward deploy and generate sorties in an austere location.
“Over the years, we’ve had a few different programs in the wing,” Andrle said. “First it was Blended Operational Lightning Technician, then it was Lightning Technician Program, then it was Core 54. At the heart of each of those was the same goal, getting leaner and lighter at forward operating locations and still being successful.”
With the new Multi-Capable Airmen construct, mission commanders can use a cadre of multi-capable Airmen who have been trained on specific tasks outside their career field. That list of tasks has been pared down and are complimentary to the Airmen’s primary duties. Agile Flag was the first time they tested the new construct in a large exercise.
“The MCA construct provides us a huge operational capability,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Farrell, 4th Fighter Squadron commander. “We can go into a remote airfield, with a very small team, under combat conditions and land, refuel and rearm and take off again in a very short period.”
During these large force exercises and deployments pilots have continued to be impressed with the capabilities the F-35 brings to the fight, from integrating with other NATO F-35s to “quarterbacking” the battle space.
“A lot has changed since the start of the F-35 program and we are really seeing the stealth and sensor fusion characteristics performing very well in highly-dense threat environments.” Bashore said. “The F-35 can take in and share so much data across the force. It makes every platform more lethal and survivable. When the F-35 is out there, whether it’s against surface or air threats, we are severely impacting the adversary’s ability to fight.”
During last year’s deployment to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, the wing’s 34th Fighter Squadron flew combat air patrols around the clock from several locations around Europe. During that time, they integrated with other NATO F-35s and the results were encouraging.
“The interoperability that makes this jet so powerful is really improving,” Andrle said. “When we can successfully integrate with allied nation F-35s, and all our jets are talking to each other and we’re seeing the same things it is impressive. One of our primary tools for deterrence is that capability to integrate and cooperate with our allies and partners.