F-35’s kill ratio with Aggressors stands at 15:1 during Red Flag 17-1 (most probably thanks to the supporting F-22…)

An F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off from Nellis AFB, Nev., Feb. 2, during Red Flag 17-01. This is the first F-35A deployment to Red Flag since the Air Force declared the jet combat ready in August 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)

It looks like the controversial F-35 is holding its own at Red Flag exercise underway at Nellis AFB.

As of Feb. 3 the F-35A had achieved a quite impressive score during Red Flag 17-1, the U.S. Air Force’s premier air combat exercise underway at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, that pits “Blue Air” (friendly forces) against “Red Air” (enemy) in an all-out air war featuring air-to-air, air-to-ground, search and rescue, and special forces elements.

According to the pilots from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings at Hill AFB, Utah, who deployed the F-35A Lightning II to the airbase off Las Vegas on Jan. 20 and began flying in the exercise Jan. 23, the type, at its debut in the world’s most realistic and challenging exercise, has achieved a 15:1 kill ratio against the Aggressors, F-16s that replicate the paint schemes, markings and insignia of their near peer adversaries and whose role is to threaten strike packages in the same way a modern enemy would do in a real war.

F-35A Lightning IIs piloted by the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings prepare to depart Hill AFB, Utah, Jan. 20 for Nellis AFB, Nev., to participate in a Red Flag exercise. Red Flag is the U.S. Air Force’s premier air-to-air combat training exercise. This is the first deployment to Red Flag since the Air Force declared the jet combat ready in August 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)

Well, after eight days “at war”, in spite of being “just” IOC (Initial Operational Capable – the FOC is expected next year with Block 3F) the F-35A Lightning II is proving to be an “invaluable asset” during Red Flag 17-01, the Air Force’s premier air combat exercise held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada: its ability to gather, fuse, and distribute more information than any other fighter in history provide the pilot with vital situational awareness that can be exploited to escape (and engage?) highly sophisticated and lethal enemy ground threats and interceptors.

Actually, the extent of the F-22 Raptors contribution to the above mentioned kill ratio is not clear: the F-35s are flying alongside Raptors and, as one might expect, the F-22s take care of the aggressors whilst the F-35s slip undetected through the surface-to-air defenses until it reaches the position to drop munitions at the target.

Considered that the F-22s are providing air cover to the Lightning IIs, is the 15:1 score a team result or the actual kill ratio of the F-35A?

There’s been much debate about the kill ratio of the F-35 made public after air-to-air engagements against other aircraft (namely the F-15E during a similated deployment last year).

“The first day we were here, we flew defensive counter-air and we didn’t lose a single friendly aircraft,” Lt. Col George Watkins, an F-35 pilot and 34th Fighter Squadron commander, said in a release. “That’s unheard of,” he added.

With the F-35A, pilots can gather and fuse data from a multitude of sources and use the jet’s advanced sensors to precisely pinpoint a threat. Then they can take it out with one 2,000 pounds bomb. It would be impossible for a fourth-generation aircraft to survive such a mission, according to Lt. Col. Dave DeAngelis, F-35 pilot and commander of the 419 Operations Group, Detachment 1.

As of last Thursday, Hill’s Airmen have generated 110 sorties (with 13 aircraft), including their first 10-jet F-35A sortie Jan. 30 and turned around and launched eight jets that afternoon. They have not lost a single sortie to a maintenance issue and have a 92 percent mission-capable rate, said 1st Lt. Devin Ferguson, assistant officer in charge of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. Legacy aircraft average 70 to 85 percent mission-capable, according to the U.S. Air Force.

An F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off from Nellis AFB, Nev., Feb. 2, during Red Flag 17-01. This is the first F-35A deployment to Red Flag since the Air Force declared the jet combat ready in August 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. This aircraft is going to hang stores under the wings as well (indeed, it even had a problem deploying the Sidewinder, but I don’t count that as a strike).

    But, really, this aircraft should’ve been canceled in 2002 when it was clear Lockheed and Boeing bit off more than they could chew.

    As a former US Army pilot, who got a chance to evaluate the RAH-66 Comanche, I know the politics involved in these kinds of procurements. What’s happened now is that with so much money already spent on this thing, the Pentagon is not going to cancel it now, and they’re certainly not going to allow anything negative ever to be said about the aircraft, not by their crews and not by anyone else directly associated with it. And it’s gotten out of hand; we can’t really know the truth. For myself, I hope this thing is EVERYTHING they say it will be. Because, if it isn’t, a lot of guys are going to die in it. I hope whosoever is making the call about this thing better be right; if not, I don’t see how they can sleep at night.

    • Well, Max, as an Air Force pilot in Viet Nam, and a Life Member of the Air Force Association, I can assure you the F-35 kill ratio, as proven in Red Flag operations, has a Kill ratio in simulated combat of 35 to one. That’s 35 enemy kills to only one of ours lost..THAT is dramatic.
      The F-35 is designed, and equipped to combat enemy aircraft far outside the visible sight range of the enemy aircraft it engages. Should they decide to hang ordinance externally (again, designed to carry internally for stealth), it would only be done so after air dominance had been attained in a particular theater of operations, and air threats removed.
      It proved its manouverability at the Paris Air Show recently, far beyond expectations. There are ALWAYS teething problems to overcome, and ANY new aircraft that is far ahead of current, will have them to overcome..especially electronics.

      • Well, as I said, I hope so. Because this has been very heavily mismanaged. Perhaps it’s not as really bad as the Comanche, which was so poorly handled that Sikorsky and the DoD really didn’t have a firm grip on what this aircraft was supposed to be in terms of how it was going to do its mission, because they really didn’t ask too many attack and cavalry aviators. It was as though they didn’t go to the Army at all, but to the Air Force, and asked them what they wanted in a light attack helicopter. If you saw this thing, it had fly-by-wire everywhere, and no physical control links. That’s a no-go for Army operations right there. The retractable landing struts were the thing that caused us all to call it a turkey on sight, for obvious reasons. This was to be a Stealthy helicopter, meaning it was to have a smaller radar cross-section to make it harder for radar-guided munitions to counter it, but for its mission this was not a priority, because we don’t really encounter that very often, if at all, these days, because we usually have other assets that take that kind of threat out long before our aircraft go into the theater. The Sikorsky rep was refreshingly honest, perhaps a bit too honest, when he said that the initial flight hour to maintenance hour ratio was something like 1:200, which was completely ridiculous for any aircraft short of a spacecraft; he said that was the estimate they were going for initial production and that, over time (within 5-10 years) that they’d get that number down to 1:50. The Apache is roughly around 1:45, not including phases. The internal weapons bays were also a no-go. We didn’t want anything that couldn’t handle the mud and blood of being in the field, and that’s rough on any piece of equipment, let alone a helicopter.

        As I said, I hope the F-35 is everything they say it is. I really do. I don’t have any power to change or stop it in anyway.

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