F-35s played the US Army’s primary CAS providers during Green Flag. And were not shot down in the process

Jul 01 2015 - 49 Comments

Two F-35 Lightning II took on a primary role as Close Air Support providers during GF 15-08.

For the first time, F-35s belonging to the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron played a major role during one of the 10 yearly iterations of Green Flag, an exercise conducted on the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, where more than 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers against simulated enemy forces in a 14-day long pre-deployment trial by fire.

Although the JSF has sporadically taken part in past Green Flag drills in the past, this was the very first time the F-35 had the primary exercise role of CAS providers: the pricey stealth multi-role planes penetrated a “contested and degraded battlespace” waiting for calls for support from JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) and liaison officers on the ground.

According to the Air Force, the F-35s did the job effectively “just like those that came before it,” a comment that seems to suggest that F-35 is already as capable as the an A-10 or an F-16 in the CAS role, at least in the type of support with Troops in Contact required during a Green Flag exercise.

“The roles played by the two operational test fighters seem relatively modest when examined within the immense scale of a National Training Center rotation. Fourteen days of maneuvering against adversaries in vast desert mountain ranges makes Green Flag a test of the mind and body alike. But when help from the air was called upon, F-35 pilots from the 31st TES communicated and used their systems with precision. They created strategic effects that left troops on the ground largely unaware and unconcerned of what airframe they might be using — seamless integration at its finest,” says the release by the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs.

There is a widespread concern that the pricey, troubled multirole F-35 will not be as effective as an A-10 Thunderbolt II or any of the other aircraft the JSF is about to replace but the Air Force seems to be enthusiastic about its new combat plane, especially in the much debated CAS role.

According to AW&ST the Lightning IIs achieved an important result during GF 15-08: not a single F-35  was “shot down” during the drills, a significant achievement for the JSF at its first active participation in a major exercise, especially considering that A-10s and F-16s were defeated in the same conditions.

On the other side, several other analysts claim the participation of two test aircraft in the exercise was just a PR stunt, since the aircraft is still quite far from achieving a combat readiness required to really support the troops at war: it can’t use the gun, it is limited to a couple of JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) and it is still flawed by a long list of serious issues, including those to the 400K USD HMD (Helmet Mounted Display).

The debate between F-35 supporters and critics was made more harsh by a brief obtained by War Is Boring, according to which the JSF was outclassed by a two-seat F-16D Block 40 (one of the aircraft the U.S. Air Force intends to replace with the Lightning II) in mock aerial combat.

Although we have already debunked some theories about the alleged capabilities of all the F-35 variants to match or considerably exceed the maneuvering performance of every fourth-generation fighter, to such an extent we already highlighted that there is no way a JSF will ever match (for instance) a Eurofighter Typhoon in aerial combat, it must be remembered that the simulated dogfight mentioned in the unclassified report obtained by WIB involved one of the very first test aircraft: the AF-02 is quite a basic JSF that lacks a mission systems software to use all the onboard sensors, does not have the special stealth coating that makes it virtually invisible to radars and it implemented an obsolete software code full of limitations.

This does not mean the F-35 will ever be as maneuverable and lethal in aerial combat as an F-22 or an F-16, but it will probably perform a bit better than AF-02 did during its simulated dogfight against the F-16D Block 40.


  • Rusty Shackleford

    I really think the Pentagon is sand bagging with the capabilities of this aircraft.

    • BDT

      Of course they are. No one will actually know what it can do until it’s been in a fight.

  • jon smith

    The real question people should ask is how long did the F-35 remain on station to provide CAS and how many bombs did it drop? The F-35 carries substantially less fuel and internal ordnance in stealth mode that the A-10 or even the F-16. While it could carry more on it’s exernal wings, that totally negates the stealth benefits. The A-10 can remain overhead for hours and carries

    1,170 rounds of 30 mm and over 16,000 lbs of ordnance, the F-16 while less rounds of ammo at 511, still can carry 17,000 lbs of ordnance. The F-35A carries 180 rounds of ammo and 4,700 lbs of ordnance internally in stealth configuration. The F-35B and C carries no internal rounds in stealth and 220 rounds in an external pod but would be no longer as stealthy. The F-35B carries just 2,700lbs of ordnance internally.

    The A-10 and F-16 also carries the latest varient of the LITENING II and ROVER pods that allows it to receive and send data to soldiers on the ground. The F-35’s ETOS sensor is now a decade behind the LITENING II sensors and two decades behind when it finally comes online compared to the pod sensors that have be upgraded over the last decade and does not have ROVER capabilities allowing it to send data down to the ground. Soldiers have said the ROVER is a game-changing capability that allows the pilot to send what they see from the plane directly to the soldier on the ground.

    • Daniel Glass

      Wait, less fuel? The F-16 can only hold 7000 pounds internally, the F-35 carries 18500 internally.

      As for ordinance, the 8 250lbs SDBs it can carry internally are going to give you better effect than the A-10’s dumber loadout. And two tanks and a further 16 SDBs with pylons. With modern munitions bigger is dumber, we can get better on-target effect with bombs that actually hit with minimized collateral.

      And you don’t seem to get that the passive sensor suite and it’s data capabilities go way beyond the old pod-based workarounds. The F-35 ultimately does everything better without having to expose itself like the A-10 and F-16 do.

  • rats123

    Critics fail to realise the purpose of the F35. It is not designed for close in air superiority. That role is for the F22. The F35 is one super sophisticated avionics platform which when linked with other F35s forms an almost impenetrable net for enemy aircraft. Just imagine 50 F35s with their AESA radars all linked together identifying and taking out enemy aircraft from a distance. There is no requirement and reliance on a big old lumbering AWACs system.

    The F35 is not going to be dueling one on one with enemy fighters. Those countries fielding F35s will have sufficient numbers to use them effectively. The only time the F35s will really be tested is if they come up against an enemy with many 4++/5th generation fighters. This is highly unlikely to happen given only Russia, China and India (to a lesser degree) can field such aircraft.

  • KLD

    So it can shoot bad guys on the ground. What happens if, in a future conflict/war, the bad guys are flying Mig 34’s or even a Gengdu J 11 while the F 35 is focused on the ground?

    • n0truscotsman

      Future war will be F35s (or whatever) dropping PGMs in permissive environments within third word/developing countries. Not wars with peer powers.

    • rats123

      What’s a Mig 34?

  • BadgerMk1

    This report sounds precisely like PR spin to me. The conditions in these Large Force Exercises can be shaped to create any type of result the exercise planners want. The After Action Reports that come out of exercises like these are usually far too optimistic as well.

    • Cody3/75

      This was setting the record straight on a War is Boring, and follow up Foxtrot Alpha article that intentionally neglected entire pieces of the story to continue their anti-F-35 stance.

  • pacificwaters

    What an incredibly stupid rationalization. “the F-35s did the job effectively “just like those that came before it,” a comment that seems to suggest that F-35 is already as capable as the an A-10 or an F-16 in the CAS role” We substitute an aircraft that costs a branch average of $178 million for one that costs $11 million (A-10) to $17 million (F-16).

    • Cody3/75

      And you assuming that it isn’t as capable (while it is probably even more so) is equally “incredibly stupid.” This comment isn’t really aimed at you. Just in general…

      I’m not the first person about to provide these observations and wont be the last. Yet its gleefully ignored by most while concocting their anti-F-35 diatribes.

      It’s a better CAS alternative than the F-16 and A-10. First of all, the days of needing an aircraft to loiter and low altitude and low speed are over. What is necessary is providing ordnance on demand, accurately, in any environment. The A-10 can’t begin to do this. The F-16 is vaguely better, but has absolutely no staying power. Within minutes of coming on station they generally wave off to tank. The F-35 has very good range and loiter capability for a single-engined fighter.Much better than everyone’s darling, the F-16. It’s payload capability is perfectly acceptable. At minimum, it’s better than the F-117, while being stealthier and carrying air-to-air munitions. At best, it’s a day one capable strike platform that frees up the F-22 for air-superiority and hitting the most high-profile targets. In the vast majority of situations it’s limited payload is temporary. After air defenses degrade and the threat is negated to MANPADs or flak, then it can strap all the munitions under it’s wings that a ground commander could want. Those criticizing range wont tell you it’s very good, maybe even best in class. Those criticizing payload won’t remind you that it’s temporary. Even if it has to retain it’s LO properties, a little research into munitions dropped, per sortie, per aircraft for the past three decades should put you at ease. That doesn’t even hint at the aircraft’s SEAD/DEAD capabilities. It’ll be the best Wild Weasel aircraft ever designed. Considering the value the US (rightly) puts on one service members life, how much is “too much” becomes far more contentious. I know how I feel.

      Source: Dozens of months (literally) between Iraq, Afghanistan, and N. Africa in a combat arms role. I’ve personally benefited from CAS over 200 times. Seen it utilized even more. Guess how many times it was an A-10? One in ten…maybe. Never at all on certain deployments. Probably one in twenty overall. Guess how many times we had to push A-10s to somebody else because we needed air far faster than their slow speed allowed? Probably ten or fifteen times The F-16 is no better. For the vast majority of what the US military does, it requires an F-16 lugging two or three fuel tanks plus hitting the tanker a couple of times. So its more often than not, only carrying a couple of bombs (something the F-35 is continually slammed for…except the F-35 is guaranteed to deliver those bombs in a contested environment). Neither the F-16 or A-10 can survive in a contested environment. The F-35 can. A serious MANPAD threat completely negates the A-10. Dont try and show me the stupid pic of an A-10 surviving a MANPAD hit either. I could show you a better pic of just about every other aircraft that has done the same. It negates the A-10, period. Don’t believe me? We jerked the A-10 out of combat vs ISIL and a minimal to moderate MANPAD threat after one, almost very bad accident. The F-16 can get above the MANPAD threat, but has absolutely no chance of applying accurate CAS at those speeds and altitudes. The F-35 on the other hand is more survivable, and more accurate in a similar situation. Doesn’t matter how awesome your CAS platform is if it never makes it, or makes it too late. Guess what the very best CAS aircraft were? Loitering B-1B or B-52’s slinging dual-mode JDAMs on demand. AKA bomb on it’s way in less than five minutes. My next favorite was the F-14. It’s long leg and high-speed made it expedient. An extra pair of eyes and very powerful TV made it very accurate. The F-14 was retired long ago. I personally benefited from F-14 CAS more often than A-10s.

      The battlefield is changing. Traditional CAS is an entirely different game, and if you try to play with the same equipment you’re going to lose. Thats fine if you treat losses like Russia or China. It’s not fine if you’re the US and the loss of one pilot, or one overrun platoon can completely alter foreign policy. The proliferation of ever more capable air-defenses, at ever cheaper prices just further solidifies this. In the very, very near future low-observable platforms will be mandatory for even low-intensity COIN operations like we’ve been doing for the past 15 years. This is a fact. It’s also a fact that our current fleet has basically had their wings flown off. Simply “upgrading” them isn’t an answer, nor is it possible. We’d literally have to start manufacturing them again. If you can’t understand why this is unacceptable then I’m probably giving readers too much credit. Drones aren’t the answer either. They may be one day, but that day isn’t here yet. We’re still a VERY long way from allowing autonomous drones to operate in a crowded airspace, within close proximity to friendly troops, or an unfriendly border. We don’t even have an operational UCAV yet. Human controlled, propeller-driven recce birds with a few hellfires don’t count. Our best option at the moment is the F-35. In a perfect world, I’d have liked to see a strike version of the F-22, and another 300-400 of the air-superiority variant. STOVL F-35s for the Corps, and a navalized F-22 (or the F-35) to give the Navy a low-observable platform. Then we could round out everyone else with F-15 Silent Eagle and the Advanced Super Hornet. They didn’t ask me. So we have a 200 ish F-22s that are more than enough to wrestle air-superiority from Russia and China at the same time. We also have the F-35 which will be just fine. It may not out dogfight an F-16, but it was never really supposed to beat one of the most prolific dogfighters in history in a knife fight. At best they were talking parity with certain 4th gen airframes. In the real world, including one with limitations on BVR, the F-16 is still dead before it knows there is F-35 near it. Much less before it turns into a maneuvering fight.

      The facts are, the F-35 is more than a match for anything except the F-22 in the BVR arena. In the WVR arena it’s still more capable than anything but the best dogfighters. And it’ll only get better. The mistake has been made, we have this aircraft for the long haul. The US Navy, Air Force, Corps, Royal Navy, IDF, Australia, S. Korea, and many others are all in on this aircraft. Take a minute to take into consideration the always elite, always capable organizations on that list. I guarantee people like IDF weren’t willing to base their national security on this aircraft if they didn’t believe in it. Whether that be the aircraft as it’s become, or as it was proposed because the truth is, money will get thrown at it till it is exactly what people want. But instead, people read an article by those hacks at War is Boring, or listen to that raving, sour-grapes moron Pierre Sprey and imagine an aircraft that couldn’t outfight a Cessna with a blind-student pilot at the controls.

      Put away the pitchforks and really start to look at the F-35. Run the numbers, yourselves. See what the DoD spends maintaining, and providing logistics for a multitude of airframes and all that’s required for just one aircraft. Cost per hour. Operating a plethora of training commands, etc. Take a look at what the development of less capable, 4th Gen +/++ fighters has costed recently, and then realize that in spite of those costs, they’re nothing new and are only raising the bar a millimeter or two. Then compare that to the JSF program and airframe costs. It’s nowhere near as asinine or costly as it seems. Compare and contrast against potential foes. Take a look back in history at all the troubled designs that ended up being hall of fame worthy performers. Or the ones that were a little iffy until they had a few years of operational time to refine new tactics and procedures. Or the ones that morphed into something unique that we couldn’t imagine doing without. Out of those three categories there are aircraft like the P-38, P-51, Grumman Wildcat, B-26 Marauder, F-14, F-104, MiG-25, SU-27, SU-25, A-10, Vulcan bomber, B-1B, B-52, F-117 and AH-1 cobra. There’s also the entire AirCobra family, the P-40, FW-190, JU-88, MiG-17 and MiG-19. The SAAB Draaken and F4U Corsair. I could literally go on for pages. Also take a look a procurement and really try to understand if it’s as bad as the pundits claim, or if it’s a case of “we have the internet now and somebody left the barn door open”. I promise this has happened before, even on this scale. If you don’t believe me, look at the design phase of the B-29. It was every bit as bad, if not worse. It’s costs were so astronomical, with so many little issues, even the strategic-bomber centric Army Air Corps was questioning it. Couple that with the fact that it was being designed entirely to haul the nuclear bomb (what the SDB is to the F-35) concurrently with the atomic bomb, and the two projects together were worth more than every ship owned by the Navy combined. This at a time when one battle group in the Pacific had ten fast carriers, 12 BBs, 30 CA/CL/CAAs, 60 DD/DEs, and 100 support vessels. When gauging perception towards, and animosity aimed at remember this was at a time when the vast majority of people just looked at nuclear bombs as just another bomb. Nobody but a very small handful knew what a game changer the bomb would be, or the necessity to have the B-29 carry it. I can list many other programs, many of which failed, that were in the same ballpark in terms of cost. What people forget though, is that the technology championed by these programs changed warfare over night, even if the host program flopped.

      I promise if you do your due diligence with an open mind you’ll come out of it appreciating the F-35 far more than you thought you might. If that still doesn’t do it for you, wait ten years and I’ll organize a time for everybody to que up so they can say “yeah…you were right.”

      That isn’t to say procurement, lobbying, all of that stuff isn’t shameful. It truly is. The Pentagon not knowing what they want and constantly moving the goal posts is just as wrong. We’ve created a system where only the largest and most Dr. Evil level corporations can afford to play. A far cry from the world of incentive/disincentive where many of these companies cut their teeth, and many other smaller ones such as Grumman, and Consolidated, Curtis-Wright, Vought, Vultee, Martin, and a dozen more could afford to compete thus strengthening the entire industry. Then remember that even then, things like the Truman Committee were still necessary. The current situation is all of our faults and a sign of the times. We’re all culpable to this. Judging by the passion of people trying to slam this thing, they were all people hawkishly watching this thing from the get go and on Day One, were one-hundred percent positive the JSF program would go through this. They then wrote letters, protested, and voted with their wallets to try and get this program shut down. Unfortunately I wasn’t watching that closely, and even if I had, given the lack of precedent in terms of the US not meeting challenging engineering goals, I probably still wouldn’t have said anything. Right? In all seriousness though, I bet most of us know people that work in the defense industry. Are they all horrible people trying to fleece the American people? Of course not, none of them are. Thinking in those kinds of black and white is moronic. That’s something that the idiots who continually spout the phrase “military industrial-complex” to describe anything negative that involves the DoD or attached funding and contracts, without having the most minute clue what it means. That’s for amateurs over at War is Boring to parrot. The contractors are American tax payers too. Many of which are obsessive about producing a quality product for a home-sick eighteen year old.

      Everybody needs to take a breath with regards to the F-35. China saw enough in its aerodynamics alone to copy it. They put it into mass production and won’t benefit from a fraction of what the F-35 will- avionics, stealth, support, or training. Pretty ignorant move to copy an airframe based on its aerodynamics (not air combat changing capabilities and sensors) if those aerodynamics are inherently trash or “flawed”. Yep pretty ignorant out of a people that’s coldly and methodically building the next economic and potentially military, world superpower.

    • n0truscotsman

      There needs to be more data. The article is wanting in so many ways.

    • Prince Edward

      Don’t forget maintenance and operation costs. The A-10 operates for a fraction of both costs. Also, the F-35 needs intensive, time-consuming maintenance, especially for the Stealth coating.

  • big john ok

    yet they were owned by f-16’s in a different exercise doing dog fighting scenarios.

  • Cody3/75

    Read my reply above. You’ll choke to death on “facts”. I’ll embarrass your best argument.

  • Cody3/75

    Sigh. See my comment above. Then go study A2D2 warfare. Then go study possible counters to this. Then go study American doctrine, and how American weaponry would shape how that doctrine is implemented.

  • Cody3/75

    You have absolutely no clue what you’re talking about. Even worse, you have absolutely no idea how to talk about it.

  • Cody3/75

    Don’t even try. The anti-F-35 crowd approaches trollish dimensions on this website. Then again, a third of the time it really is Russian trolls so….

  • Uniform223

    A great man once said, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience”.

  • Uniform223

    A wise man once said, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience”.

  • Uniform223

    I’ve been hearing and reading much bovine fecal matter about how the whole Green Flag Exercise was staged to make the F-35 look good. I can tell you from experience from numerous FTXs… BOVINE FECAL MATTER.

    The only rules in place during such exercises are rules for safety. The point behind such exercises is to train and become proficient. Handicapping one side in order to make the other side look good in reality is stupid because IT HANDICAPS THE WARFIGHTER FROM DOING THE ACTUAL MISSION.

    Does anyone remember that training scene in Heartbreak Ridge

    Later Clint Eastwood’s character (Gunnery Sgt. Highway) was being chewed out because he deviated from the ass hat of a Major’s perfect plan to ensure that his platoon was successful. What was the Gunny’s response…

    “The only thing I’ll get is my head shot off if I go into a hot landing zone with a platoon that doesn’t know it’s job”.

  • Gio Pí

    you’re the one under a rock, obviously you do not keep up with the times. Go read something.

  • Gio Pí

    Ok, that is your opinion – and perhaps you have worked at both companies, but administrative roles do not give any credence to your opinion, thank you.

  • Gio Pí

    um no. you’re wrong. sorry play again.

  • Gio Pí

    the USA will not be going to war with russia and china get lost.

  • rats123

    No, the US won’t be fighting Russia or China. Why? Because it will escalate to a nuke war.

    There is a small possibility of a proxy war, like Vietnam or Afghanistan, but this is also highly likely. Both Russia and China are heavily trade dependent and they would not jeopardize this.

    Any war the US wages will be against minnows like Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and co.

  • rats123

    The Soviet and now Russian philosophy has always been of continuous improvement. The Western aircraft building philosophy is one of let’s get it right from the beginning.

    The T-50 will go through several improvements over its life time including improved engines (a new engine is already being developed). This new engine will minimize heat radiation.

    Also the T-50 is designed for frontal stealth and sacrifices all aspect stealth for improved maneuverability.