Monthly Archives: December 2017

“We Always Managed To Get Behind US-led Coalition Fighter Jets Encountered Over Syria” Cocky Russian Pilot Says

“We always found ourselves ‘on their tails’ as the pilots say, which means victory in a dogfight.” Just the latest chapter of Russia’s hybrid warfare in Syria?

Close encounters between Russian and U.S. aircraft over Syria are nothing new. What’s new is the way this close-quarter Russian/U.S. shadow boxing incidents are reported from both sides: two incidents, one on November 23 and another one on December 13, made headlines in Russia and the U.S. with differing accounts of the nearly identical incidents and the reasons they happened.

For instance, dealing with the first one, according to the Russian version, a Sukhoi Su-35S was scrambled after a U.S. F-22 interfered with two Su-25s that were bombing an Islamic State target and chased the Raptor away. The Russian account was denied by the U.S. Central Command, that in an email to The Aviationist explained that there was no truth in the allegation:

“According to our flight logs for Nov 23, 2017, this alleged incident did not take place, nor has there been any instance where a Coalition aircraft crossed the river without first deconflicting with the Russians via the deconfliction phone line set up for this purpose. Of note, on Nov 23, 2017, there were approximately nine instances where Russian fighter aircraft crossed to the east side of the Euphrates River into Coalition airspace without first using the deconfliction phone. This random and unprofessional activity placed Coalition and Russian aircrew at risk, as well as jeopardizing Coalition ability to support partner ground forces in the area.”

Dealing with the second incident, U.S. officials told Fox News that a USAF F-22 Raptor stealth fighter flew in front of a pair of Russian Air Force Su-25 Frogfoot attack jets near Al Mayadin, Syria, “an area off-limits to Russian jets based on a long-standing mutual agreement”. In an attempt to force the Russian aircraft to change course, the American stealth jet cut across the front of the Russian jets, and released flares (a tactic known as ‘head-butting,’ meant to send a strong warning to an opposing warplane).

A Russian Flanker flying at MAKS 2017 (Jacek Siminski)

Needless to say, this time it was the Russians to deny the version of events: according to the Russian MoD the Su-25s were escorting a humanitarian convoy on the western side of the Eurphrates and it was the U.S. aircraft that crossed the deconfliction line. “A Russian Su-35 fighter jet, performing an air cover mission at an altitude of 10,000 meters, swiftly approached the F-22 from the rear, forcing the American aircraft to leave the area.”

“We saw anywhere from six to eight incidents daily in late November, where Russian or Syrian aircraft crossed into our airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River,” Lt. Col. Damien Pickart of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command told U.S. news outlet CNN recently. “It’s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots are deliberately testing or baiting us into reacting, or if these are just honest mistakes.”

On Dec. 29, the state-run RT media outlet reported:

Russian pilots always managed to get behind US-led coalition fighter jets they encountered in the skies over Syria, a Russian ace said after receiving a state award from President Putin at the Kremlin.

When meeting our partners from the Western coalition in the air, we always found ourselves ‘on their tails’ as the pilots say, which means victory in a dogfight,” Russian Airspace Forces major, Maksim Makolin, said.

The so-called ‘lag pursuit’ when the nose of an attacking plane points at the tail of the opponent’s aircraft is considered the optimum location in an aerial fight. It allows the plane at the back a range of options, from increasing or maintaining range without overshooting to freely attacking, all the while remaining concealed in the blind spot behind the defending aircraft.

Makolin became one of the 14,000 Russian servicemen who received state decorations for their courage and professionalism during the two-year-long Russian campaign in Syria.

We have already discussed these close encounters, the tactical value of supermaneuverability vs stealthiness, the ROE, etc. In this case it’s only worth noticing there is no attempt to ease tensions, quite the contrary, as if certain statements were part of a hybrid warfare made of actual aircraft, as well as cyber warfare, proxy forces and propaganda. In this respect, if you are willing to learn more about “Russia’s campaign to mislead the public and undermine democratic institutions around the world,” I suggest you reading this report here.  “It reveals how the Russian government is conducting a major multi-pronged propaganda campaign to spread false information… […]”

Image credit: Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation/Wiki

The Incredible B-2 Wing Flutter Video and What It Means.

Test Video Shows Interesting Structural Capabilities of Advanced Aircraft Like B-2.

This remarkable video of a Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber undergoing wing flutter testing on June 14, 1995 is fascinating for a number of reasons.

All aircraft wings have a remarkable capacity for flex. But one of the most significant changes in aircraft engineering in the last three decades has been the addition of composite materials, especially carbon fibers, into aircraft structural design. In many cases these composite materials have replaced metal alloys in structural components on advanced aircraft.

The B-2 Spirit is approximately 80% composite, mostly carbon fiber. Some of the structural framework internal to the B-2, especially where the wing blends into the fuselage and the largest fuel tanks are located, is titanium and aluminum. While part of the reason for this is structural, another reason is that composites, being made up of a number of different elements, can have radar absorbent materials included in their manufacture or “lay-up” during the process of combining materials into a composite.

There are many reasons composite materials, or materials made up of a combination of advanced materials including metals, polymers (plastics) and carbon atoms at the most elemental level, have become so common in aviation engineering.

Two of the chief reasons are illustrated in this video.

Composites Are Anisotropic.

Anisotropic materials can be engineered to transmit energy differently in different directions. Metals, including metal alloys like aluminum made from the ore bauxite, are isotropic, they only transmit energy in one direction. That means a composite like carbon fiber, being anisotropic, can be engineered to be stiff along one axis or direction of stress, but flexible in another. In the case of this B-2 video, the carbon-fiber composite material in the wings is engineered to absorb energy from aerodynamic stress and bend significantly in the vertical axis, with little change in flight attitude during the flexing. The wings do not twist or begin a similar leading edge to trailing edge vibration, which would change the aircraft’s angle of attack.

Structural elements of a B-2 Spirit. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

Composites Have Different Fatigue Characteristics.

Eventually all materials fail. The number of normal fatigue cycles a material can endure prior to failure is part of its fatigue limit. In general, isotropic materials like metals and metal alloys have a shorter, lower fatigue limit or number of fatigue cycles. Composite materials like carbon fiber can be engineered at the molecular level to have much longer fatigue limits, enduring more fatigue cycles. And when they reach their fatigue limits, composites tend to fail differently than metals, with cracks propagating through the laminated material very differently than through the often more linear grain structure of a metal or metal alloy. As a result, carbon fiber structures in aircraft can be more durable than alloy structures, one of the reasons for the growing use of carbon fiber composites in advanced aircraft like the B-2 and in future aircraft like the B-21 Raider.

B-2s also have a system called the Gust Load Alleviation System that looks like the aircraft’s beaver tail. The GLAS counters the rolling impact or resonance to smooth out the ride of the B-2 in turbulent conditions and extend the aircraft’s fatigue life. The GLAS also smooths the ride of the B-2 in low altitude flight, even though the B-2 is predominantly designed for the high-altitude flight regime.

Air Force test data from tests like the one in this video and through finite elemental analysis (FEA) modeling suggest the B-2 will remain structurally sound to approximately 40,000 flight hours. This analysis also revealed that the rudder attachment points at the B-2’s wingtips are the highest structural stress areas and will be the first to fail. B-2 Spirits have not implemented an Aircraft Structural Improvement Program (ASIP) as we have seen on the primarily alloy B-52 heavy bombers. Some sources suggest this may make it more difficult to predict an economic service life and attrition rate according to author Don Greer. Given the current engineering limitations established in tests like these, the current B-2 Spirit force will fall below its requirement of 19 aircraft (of which less are combat capable) by the year 2027, making the new B-21 Raider even more important.

A graphic showing the wing loading and stress vectors on a B-2 wing. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

Su-27 Inside Area 51, WC-135 Nuke Sniffer Saga, Iran’s Stealth Jet Update, And Much More: The Aviationist’s Top Stories Of 2017

The five top stories of The Aviationist provide the readers the opportunity to virtually review what happened in 2017.

Ordered by pageviews, the following 5 posts got the most reads and comments among the articles published on The Aviationist this year.

Needless to say, we have covered many more topics during the past year: the mysterious crash of an unidentified aircraft type that cost the life of Col. Eric Schultz; the Syrian Su-22 shot down by a U.S. Navy Super Hornet over Syria; the F-35 Lightning II (first special tail; first female pilot; Israeli IOC; birdstrikes and subsequent theories; etc); the Russian Su-57 (formerly PAK FA); the B-21 Raider; the North Korean crisis; some serious accidents across Europe; and much, much more…

BTW, we have also published an ebook on the A-10 Thunderbolt titled “BRRRTTT…deployments, war chronicles and stories of the last A-10 Warthogs” that is now available in paperback version on Amazon.

Please use the search feature on the site or select the proper category/tag to read all what we have written throughout the last year.

1) These crazy photos show a Russian Su-27 Flanker dogfighting with a U.S. Air Force F-16 inside Area 51

The two jets almost overlap (the Su-27 is farther, the F-16 is closer to the camera), during a dogfight inside Area 51.

Jan. 06 2017

You don’t happen to see a Su-27 Flanker dogfighting with a F-16 unless you visit Area 51. Here are the amazing photographs taken near Groom Lake, on Nov. 8, 2016, U.S. election day.

The photographs in this post were taken from Tikaboo Valley, near Groom Lake, Nevada, by Phil Drake, who was lucky enough to observe a Su-27P Flanker-B dogfighting with an F-16, presumably one of the four Groom Lake based -D models in the skies of the famous Area 51.

Although the quality of the pictures is low (the aircraft were flying between 20K and 30K feet) they are extremely interesting since Flankers operating from Groom are not a secret (they have been documented in 2003 – 2004 and more recently between 2012 and 2014) but have rarely been photographed.

Here’s Phil’s report of the rare sighting:

“The date was November 8th, US election day, and the sighting was between 1500 and 1525.

I was visiting Nevada hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the latest defense programmes being tested.

On the Monday and Wednesday, Nellis Aggressor F-15s and F-16s were regularly overhead, dropping flares and sonic booms.  It was Tuesday afternoon when the skies went quiet for a couple of hours, and I hoped this may be a sign of something unusual being flown.

Eventually the sound of jet noise caught my attention, and I scanned the clear blue skies ’til I saw the tiny speck of an approaching military jet at high altitude, leaving an intermittent contrail.

It was instantly recognisable as a Russian built Sukhoi 27 Flanker, and carried no national insignia or identifying marks.

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2) U.S. Air Force deploys WC-135 nuclear sniffer aircraft to UK as spike of radioactive Iodine levels is detected in Europe

The WC-135 nuke sniffer (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

Feb. 19 2017

The USAF WC-135C Constant Phoenix might be investigating a spike in radioactive levels in Norway. Someone speculates the release of this radionuclide could be the effect of a Russian nuclear test.

On Feb. 17, 2017, U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer,” serial number 62-3582, using radio callsign “Cobra 55” deployed to RAF Mildenhall, UK.

As we have already reported the WC-135 is a derivative of the Boeing C-135 transport and support plane. Two of these aircraft are in service today out of the ten examples operated since 1963. The aircraft are flown by flight crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base while mission crews are staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

The WC-135, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel. However, crew compliments are kept to a minimum during mission flights in order to lessen levels of radioactive exposure.

Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

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3) New Photos And Video of Iran’s Homemade F-313 “Qaher” Stealth Jet Have Just Emerged. And Here’s A First Analysis

The F-313 during taxi tests (highlighted the main differences since the first appearance in 2013).

Apr. 15 2017

A new prototype of the weird Qaher 313 stealth jet has conducted taxi tests.

Footage and photographs showing a new prototype (marked “08”) of the famous Qaher F-313 stealth fighter jet have just emerged as Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani participated Saturday in an exhibition displaying the achievements that the Defense Ministry Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan gained during the past two years.

Indeed, an “upgraded version” of the “faux stealth fighter” can be observed performing taxi tests. The aircraft appears to be slightly different from the one unveiled on Feb. 2, 2013, that was nothing more than a poorly designed mock-up that would never fly unless it was extensively modified and heavily improved.

Four years ago, the cockpit was basic for any modern plane, the air intakes appeared to be too small, the engine section lacked any kind of nozzle meaning that the engine would probably melt the aircraft’s back-end. Above all, the aircraft was way too small to such an extent its cockpit could not fit a normal-sized human being.

The new prototype retains the original weird shape but has a more realistic cockpit, large enough to accommodate an Iranian test pilot on an ejection seat, with a “normal” canopy (the previous one was clearly made of plexiglass), and a dorsal antenna. It is equipped with dual exhaust nozzles: according to some sources these are U.S. engines, according to others these would be new turbofan engines or modified Iranian J-85s. And, interestingly, a sort of FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) turret was attached to the nose of the aircraft, that also features a white radome.

Although the new prototype is not a complete joke as its predecessor, it is still pretty hard to say whether it will be able to take to the air and land safely without further modifications: the intakes continue to appear smaller than normal (as commented back in 2013, they remind those of current drones/unmanned combat aerial vehicles); the wing are small as well and feature the peculiar design with the external section canted downward whose efficiency is not clear.

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4) U.S. Department Of Defense Video Shows Unknown Object Intercepted By U.S. Navy Super Hornet And We Have No Idea What It Was.

ATFLIR footage of a mysterious object intercepted by USN F/A-18 Super Hornet in 2004.

Dec. 12 2017

This video shows the weird object as seen from a U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet’s ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared) pod. What is it? Any idea?

On Dec. 16, the NYT published an interesting story about a U.S. Department of Defense program that investigated reports of UFOs (unidentified flying objects). Along with interviews with program participants and records they obtained investigating the mysterious Pentagon program, The New York Times has released a video that shows a close encounter between an F/A-18F Super Hornet out of USS Nimitz and one of these UFOs back in 2004.

Back in 2007, a user (cometa2) of the popular Above Top Secret (ATS) forum posted an alleged official CVW-11 Event Summary of a close encounter occurred on Nov. 14, 2004. Back then, when the encounter had not been confirmed yet, many users questioned the authenticity of both the event log and the footage allegedly filmed during the UFO intercept. More than 10 years later, with an officially released video of the encounter, it’s worth having a look at that unverified event log again: although we can’t say for sure whether it is genuine or not, it is at least “realistic” and provides some interesting details and narrative consistent with the real carrier ops. Moreover, the summary says that the callsign of the aircraft involved in the encounter is Fast Eagle: this callsign is used by the VFA-41 Black Aces – incidentally the very same squadron of David Fravor, formed Co of VFA-41, the pilot who recalled the encounter to NYT.

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5) Rare Photo Shows F-4 Phantom Flying Inverted While Intercepting A Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber

The famous shot of the inverted flying F-4 Phantom (the aircraft was actually ending a barrel roll).

Dec. 04 2017

“Because I was….inverted!”: Top Gun stunt performed near a Russian strategic bomber.

In the last few years, we have often reported about “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts conducted across the world by Russian (and Chinese) fighter jets scrambled to identify and escort U.S. spyplanes flying in international airspace.

Barrel rolls, aggressive turns that disturbed the controllability of the “zombie” (intercepted aircraft in fighter pilot’s jargon), inverted flight: if you use the search function on this site you can read of several such incidents that made the news on media all around the world.

The last episode involved a Russian Su-30 that crossed within 50 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon’s path over the Black Sea during an intercept mission, causing the American maritime patrol aircraft to endure violent turbulence, on Nov. 25, 2017.

However, as a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models, told us a couple of years ago:

“Prior to the end of the Cold War interceptors from a variety of nations managed to get into tight formation with RC-135s and EP-3s. Smaller airplanes like MiG-21s made it easy. The challenge with the larger airplanes like the Su-27 and MiG-31 is the sheer size of the interceptor as it moves in front of any portion of the intercepted plane.

At least the Su-27 pilot has excellent all-around visibility to see where the back-end of his own airplane is as he maneuvers adjacent to the RC-135.

The U-Boat crew took video of the intercept, which has not been released but shows the precise extent of how close the FLANKER really was. Recent movies taken by a PRC aircraft that was intercepted by a JASDF F-15CJ suggests that the Eagle was very close—until the camera zooms out and shows the Eagle was 70-100 feet away from the wingtip….

Finally, although the number of Russian reactions to Western recon flights has been increasing recently, for 15-20 years (certainly from 1992 through 2010) there were almost no reactions on a regular basis. As such, what passes for dangerous and provocative today was ho-hum to recon crews of my generation (although we weren’t shot at like the early fliers from 1950-1960).”

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California ANG’s 144th FW Launched 16 F-15 Eagle Jets In The Wing’s First Ever Large-Scale Aircraft Generation Exercise

California Air National Guard’s “Quick Draw” exercise put the 144th Fighter Wing’s readiness to test.

On Dec. 21, the 144th Fighter Wing, based at California Air National Guard Base Fresno, California, took part in Operation Quick Draw, the wing’s first ever large-scale aircraft generation exercise. During the uncommon drills, the unit, whose mission is to provide Air Superiority in support of worldwide joint operations as well as Air Defense of the West Coast of the United States, was called to prepare as many F-15 Eagles for combat as possible with only a 24-hour notice.

In the end the unit was able to generate and launch 16 out of 16 F-15 Eagle fighter jets, a 100% success rate according to Col. Reed Drake, Commander of the 144th FW.

A 144th FW pilot prepares to launch during Operation Quick Draw.

Although pretty uncommon in the past, these short-notice combat readiness drills are becoming part of the periodic ANG units tactical evaluations: on Nov. 22, more or less one month before the 144th FW executed the Quick Draw, the 142nd Fighter Wing/123rd Fighter Squadron “Redhawks”, based at Portland International Airport, took part in a similar exercise launching 13 F-15s within 24 hours. With ANG units supporting the various iterations of a Theater Security Package (TSP), a temporary deployment from CONUS (Continental US) of a force whose aim is to augment the Air Force presence in a specific region for deterrence purposes, assessing the Fighter Wing’s ability to deploy anywhere in the world with a short notice has become extremely important. And the 144th FW is among the units that have already deployed abroad in support of a TSP as part of an EFS (Experiditionary Fighter Squadron): in April 2016, along with the 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, the 144th Fighter Wing, deployed to Europe with a dozen F-15s (four were deployed to Iceland to provide air policing duties) for a 6-month TSP in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, with the goal to “[…] demonstrate the U.S. commitment to a Europe that is whole, free, at peace, secure, and prosperous and to deter further Russian aggression.”

The F-15Cs of the 144th FW prepare to launch from Fresno ANGB on Dec. 21, 2017.

Image credit: Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Chris Drudge

U.S. Marine Corps Planning F-35B Deployment to CENTCOM Area Of Responsibility To Get “First Taste Of Combat” In 2018

The USMC may have their “baptism of fire” with the F-35B next year.

The F-35B, the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Lightning II 5th generation aircraft is expected to deploy to the Pacific and Central Command theaters in 2018, the Marine Corps Times reported.

According to Jeff Schogol, the F-35B, that can operate from amphibious assault ships, “is expected to deploy with two Marine expeditionary units to the Pacific and Central Command theaters in the spring and summer. […]  The first deployment will be with the 31st MEU aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp and the second will be with the 13th MEU aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Essex, said spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns.”

The first deployment to the U.S. Central Command AOR (area of responsibility) – that includes Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen and Afghanistan – has long been anticipated. In 2016, Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told reporters that the service was planning to deploy the F-35B to the CENTCOM area of operations aboard the USS Essex (six more F-35Bs were to deploy to the Pacific aboard the USS Wasp).

The 2018 deployment follows the relocation of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), an F-35B squadron with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, from MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Yuma, Arizona, on Jan. 9, 2017. Since then, the F-35B have started operating in the region, taking part in local drills as well as some routine “shows of force” near the Korean Peninsula: for instance, on Aug. 30, four U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II joined two USAF B-1B Lancers from Guam onf a 10-hour mission that brought the “package” over waters near Kyushu, Japan, then across the Korean Peninsula. Interestingly, during that mission, the F-35Bs flew with the radar reflectors used to make LO (Low Observable) aircraft clearly visible on radars and also dropped their 1,000-lb GBU-32 JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) on Pilsung firing range. On a subsequent mission on Sept. 18, the aircraft took part in a “sequenced bilateral show of force” over the Korean peninsula carrying “live” AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles in the internal weapons bays.

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 departs Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Sept. 18, 2017. The F-35B Lightning II aircraft joined United States Air Force, Japan and Republic of Korea Air Force aircraft in a sequenced bilateral show of force over the Korean peninsula. This show-of-force mission demonstrated sequenced bilateral cooperation, which is essential to defending U.S. allies, partners and the U.S. homeland against any regional threat. Note the AIM-120 barely visible inside the weapons bay (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Aaron Henson)

As already reported, the F-35s would be probably involved in the Phase 4 of an eventual pre-emptive air strike on Pyongyang, the phase during which tactical assets would be called to hunt road-mobile ballistic missiles and any other artillery target that North Korea could use to launch a retaliatory attack (even a nuclear one) against Seoul.

Moreover, during the opening stages of an air war, the F-35Bs would be able to act as real-time data coordinators able to correlate and disseminate information gathered from their on board sensors to other assets contributing to achieve the “Information Superiority” required to geo-locate the threats and target them effectively.

Considered that Marine aviation officials have said that up to half of the current F/A-18 Hornets are not ready for combat, the deployment to the CENTCOM AOR a key step in the long-term plan to replace the legacy F/A-18 Hornet, EA-6B Prowler, and AV-8B Harrier fleets with a total of 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs by 2032.

Touchdown imminent during “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the USS America (LHA-6) November 19, 2016. (Todd Miller)

In October 2016, a contingent of 12 F-35Bs took part in Developmental Test III aboard USS America followed by the Lightning Carrier “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the carrier on Nov. 19, 2016. During the POC, the aircraft proved it can operate at-sea, employing a wide array of weapons loadouts with the newest software variant and some of the most experienced F-35B pilots said that “the platform is performing exceptionally.” The eventual participation in a real operation such as Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) over Syria and Iraq, albeit rather symbolic, will also be the first opportunity  to assess the capabilities of the platform in real combat. As for the Israeli F-35s, the airspace over the Middle East (or Central Asia) could be a test bed for validating the tactical procedures to be used by the new aircraft in the CAS (Close Air Support) mission with added Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) and Command & Control (C2) capability.
If committed to support OIR, the F-35B will probably operate in a “first day of war” configuration carrying weapons internally to maintain low radar cross-section and observability from sensors playing both the “combat battlefield coordinators” role, collecting, managing and distributing intelligence data, and the “kinetic attack platform” role, dropping their ordnance on the targets and passing targeting data to older 4th Gen. aircraft via Link-16. More or less what done by the USMC F-35Bs during Red Flag 17-3 earlier in 2017; but next year it will be for the real thing.

Top image credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Becky Calhoun