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F-35A maintainers honing agile combat initiatives at Red Flag

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

F-35A Lightning II maintainers from the 388th Maintenance Group’s 421st Fighter Generation Squadron are using the simulated combat environment of Red Flag to “stress test” their agility.

The 388th Fighter Wing deployed 12 F-35A Lightning II’s to Red Flag. Along with them came nearly 100 maintainers. That may seem like a large number, but it’s roughly two-thirds the size of a normal deployment package, said Capt. Christopher McLeod, 421st Fighter Generation Squadron director of operations. This is thanks to their multi-capable Airmen initiatives -- the Lightning Technician Program and Core 54.  

“We’ve eliminated some of the manpower redundancies we’ve seen with other Red Flag packages,” McLeod said. “Because of that, we have less reserve capacity. But, we’ve been able to provide all the sorties and met every need that’s come our way.”

The 388th Maintenance Group has a concerted effort underway to create multi-capable Airmen to meet evolving Air Force requirements. Two of these programs, the Lightning Technician Program and Core 54, are paying dividends during this exercise.

“For Red Flag, we’ve made a conscious decision to stress our capabilities. How lean can we get and still be successful during this exercise?” said Col. Jeremy Anderson, 388th Maintenance Group commander.

The goal of multi-capable Airmen initiatives isn’t budget cuts, or Airmen simply being asked to “do more with less.” The goal is exploring and establishing critical combat capabilities for the F-35, still the Air Force’s newest, and eventually largest, fighter fleet.

“The whole thing about agile combat employment is being light and lean and moving with velocity,” Anderson said. “What do I absolutely need in this force package? Can we leverage multi-capable Airmen to decrease the support foot print and increase agility to be more effective in combat?”

The Lightning Technician Program is a roughly 50-person flight within the 421st FGS. The goal is to have maintainers fully trained and qualified in all tasks required to support a rapid deployment with a handful of F-35’s.  “LTP is our high-end multi-capable Airmen initiative,” Anderson said.

The Core 54 program is the foundational training effort to grow multi-capable Airmen and is focused on expanding aircraft sortie generation tasks to all flight line maintainers, regardless of specialty. 

“Let’s say we had multiple jets with avionics problems. We’re going to have to pull those guys off of the generation of aircraft to fix those issues,” McLeod said “With LTP and Core 54 trained Airmen, I now have other multi-capable Airmen who can generate those aircraft so my most experienced avionics technicians can work a specific issue. That same principle applies across the aircraft’s other systems. We can keep generating sorties with multi-capable Airmen.”

Red Flag not only gives the squadron the benefit of testing their agile combat capabilities, but also builds experience and cohesiveness in the unit.

“The scope of what we ask these Airmen to learn and do is large, and the training at home can be monotonous,” McLeod said. “But, when we are here, it’s pretty close to being down range. With LTP, everyone is counting on the person next to them, because there aren’t two more people behind them that can do their job.”

Many of the Airmen also welcome the challenges that this Red Flag has presented them.

“I really enjoy it down here,” said Senior Airman Hayden Lee, an LTP technician. “We rely on each other and focus on the mission. When it’s a smaller section, you get more opportunities to see different problems and learn how to tackle those.”

And, while this exercise has been a success – no lost sorties, no maintenance shortfalls – honing and scoping the future of combat-oriented F-35 maintenance is still a work in progress for the 388th.

“We’re not trying to say that we’ve got LTP 100-percent right, or ‘Core 54’ 100-percent right,” said Anderson. “The bottom line is that they are both pieces to what agile combat employment is going to look like. Exercises like this will allow us to build a better picture of those requirements for the Air Force.”