Three words summarize the role of the F-35A during this Red Flag exercise; stealth, integration and flexibility. To a greater degree than any previous aircraft in U.S. Air Force history the F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill AFB acted as sensors, guidance platforms and strike assets almost simultaneously, and they did so in a threat environment that would have been previously impenetrable without significantly greater loses. They also performed in an air-to-air role: although we don’t know the ROE (Rules of Engagement) in place for the drills nor the exact role played by the F-22 Raptors that teamed up with the Lightning II throughout the exercise, the results achieved by the F-35, appear to be impressive, especially considering the 5th Gen. aircraft’s additional tasking during RF.
Indeed, while early reports suggested a 15-1 kill ratio recent Air Force testimony by Lt. Gen. Jerry D. Harris, Vice Commander of Air Combat Command characterized the kill ratio as “20-1” meaning that, for one F-35A “lost” in simulated combat in a high threat environment that the aircraft destroyed 20 simulated enemy aircraft.
During the same testimony, U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, related a 24-0 kill ratio for U.S. Marine F-35B aircraft during a different exercise.
Whereas the air superiority scenario has not been disclosed (therefore, the above mentioned kill ratio should be taken with a grain of salt, as always when it deals with mock air-to-air engagements…), other details of the F-35As specific missions during the exercise are beginning to emerge from Red Flag 17-1.
The recently revealed reports suggest that large-scale F-35A strikes were conducted in a highly contested/denied aerial environment. Air Force F-35As penetrated denied airspace and directed standoff weapons from B-1B heavy bombers flying outside the denied airspace. Those strikes destroyed simulated surface to air weapons systems. This suggests some of the exercises were an example of a “first day of war” scenario where Air Force F-35As spearheaded an attack on a heavily defended target set both in the air and on the ground. The F-35As entered the denied airspace and engaged both aerial and ground targets, not only with weapons they carried but also with weapons launched from other platforms such as the B-1Bs as they loitered just outside the threat environment acting as “bomb trucks.”
USAF Capt. Tim Six, and F-35A pilots of the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB, alluded to the “Sensor fusion both on-board, and off-board the aircraft” when he discussed the F-35A’s expanding envelope of strike and inter-operable capabilities.
This demonstration of F-35A capabilities counters an ongoing trend in the development of air defense networks for potential western adversaries. To a much greater degree than the F-117A Nighthawk defined the opening hours of the first Gulf War by penetrating Iraqi Air defenses and striking strategic targets with precision and stealth the F-35A expanded on that strike capability during this Red Flag according to the flying branch’s post-exercise statements.
At Red Flag 17-1 the F-35A also included additional roles previously reserved for air superiority aircraft like the F-15C Eagle and heavy strike capability from large bombers while even performing “light AWACS” duties.
“I flew a mission where our four-ship formation of F-35A’s destroyed five surface-to-air threats in a 15-minute period without being targeted once,” Major James Schmidt, an F-35A pilot for the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB told the Air Force Times.
“After almost every mission, we shake our heads and smile, saying ‘We can’t believe we just did that’ Schmidt told reporters.
Major Schmidt went on to highlight the multirole capability of the F-35A in a non-permissive environment when he recalled, “After taking out the ground threats the multirole F-35A is able to pitch back into the fight with air-to-air missiles, taking out aircraft that don’t even know we’re there.”
Another addition to media coming from Red Flag 17-1 is this beautifully done extended video from our friends at Airshow Stuff shows a remarkable array of combat aircraft arriving and departing for air combat exercises. There are B-1B Lancers, F-22 Raptors, EA-18G Growlers, F-16 Aggressors based at Nellis, RAF Typhoons, Australian E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, an Aussie C-130J Hercules transport.
At the 18:51 point in the video we get a ride in a KC-135 tanker for an approach straight into Nellis and a look at what flying into the busy base is like.
Another interesting political implication of Red Flag 17-1 is the inclusion of the Royal Australian Air Force. Although RAAF takes part to RF exercises every now and then, this may suggest an increased tempo of integrating new U.S. assets with other air forces in the Pacific region, possibly as a pro-active response to increased North Korean threats in that region.
Based on the images released by the flying branch so far, the 6o years old aircraft have flown with the underwing pylons loaded with two types of JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions): the 500-lb laser-guided GBU-54s and the 2,000-lb GPS-guided GBU-31V3 “bunker busters” onto the Heavy Stores Adaptor Beam pylons.
A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress refuels from a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Feb. 15, 2017. The 340th EARS extended the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorists by delivering fuel to U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and a B-52 Stratofortress. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jordan Castelan)
One of the most common loadout includes 3x GBU-31s and 8x GBU-54s along with PGMs carried inside the bomb bay of the B-52H Stratofortress. With the 1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade the Buffs can carry up to 16 external laser JDAMs (8 per pylon) as well as 8 internal J-series weapons mounted on a conventional rotary launcher.
Such “mixed” PGM configuration provide the aircraft the ability to deliver “kinetic” attacks engaging both stationary and moving ground targets with reduced collateral damage (using the GBU-54s, that combines 500-lb Mk-82 warhead and the precision strike capability delivered by its dual Laser/GPS mode guidance system) as well as concrete shelters and hardened targets by means of the GBU-31s that use the BLU-109 forged steel penetrator warhead.
According to the U.S. Air Force, the B-52 will be constantly upgraded so that it will be able to internally carry eight joint air-to-surface standoff missiles, as well as a variety of miniature air-launched decoys. It will also have the option of carrying up to 12 extended-range JASSM-ERs on the external pylons for a total capacity of 20 of these advanced, stealthy cruise missiles.
Until the venerable B-52 is replaced by the recently announced B-21 Raider, the B-52 is projected to continue operations until at least 2040 thanks to a series of constant upgrades that will facilitate the Stratofortress flying into is 90th year.
The current “H” model is indeed much different from the early B-52 that flew for the first time in 1952. It currently features multi-function digital display screens, computer network servers and real-time communication uplinks with Internet access.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Ben, left, and Capt. Justin, right, 96th Expeditionary Bomber Squadron pilots, takeoff to execute air operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve Feb. 13, 2017. The B-52 Stratofortress enables vital kinetic capability for the U.S. Air Force and is actively engaged in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorists. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jordan Castelan)
The multirole aircraft features thrust-vectoring, radar-absorbent paint, Irbis-E passive electronically scanned array radar, IRST (Infra-Red Search and Track) and the said ability to detect stealth planes like the F-35 at a distance of over 90 kilometers (…), the Khibiny radar jamming system along with the ability to use some interesting weapons, including the ultra-long range R-37M air-to-air missile that could target HVAA (High Value Air Assets) such as AWACS and tanker aircraft.
A suit designed to protect the pilot from chemical and biological agents has been recently tested by the U.S. Air Force.
The 461st Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, has recently tested a flight suit capable to keep F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilots alive in case of operations in a scenario contaminated by CB (Chemical Biological) agents.
The test came after a decade of planning and flight gear system design and build-up testing.
According to the U.S. Air Force, “the chemical/biological ensemble consists of a special CB suit, a Joint Service Aircrew Mask used for the F-35, a pilot-mounted CB air filter, CB socks and gloves double taped at the wrists. The ensemble also features a filtered air blower that protects the pilot from CB contamination while walking to the jet. It provides both breathing air and demist air, which goes to the pilot’s mask and goggles. All components of the CB ensemble are in addition to the pilot’s sleeved flight jacket and G suit.”
The ensemble also includes a communication system that allows the pilot can speak to life support personnel while wearing the ensemble with helmet and mask.
“It is a conversational communication unit, which is a box that integrates with the communication system so that when he speaks into his mask it lets people hear the pilot talk… it makes him sound like Darth Vader,” said Darren Cole, 461st FLTS Human Systems Integration lead.
The suit is designed to keep the CB agents out when the 5th generation multi-role aircraft fights in Weapons of Mass Destruction-infested environment.
An F-35B on loan from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona was used for the tests, that started on Jan. 6 with Marine Corps test pilots Maj. Aaron Frey and Maj. Douglas Rosenstock from the 461st FLTS who donned the CB ensemble for the first tests.
They opted for the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the JSF because it’s the most complex: “We purposely chose the Marine [short takeoff, vertical landing] version of the F-35 because the equipment is more complicated and basically has more nooks and crannies for the contaminant to hide in. This aircraft also has full-up mission systems. These tests will demonstrate that the U.S. and partner nations can fly, fight, and win in a CB threat environment and then quickly decontaminate the aircraft and return it to normal operation.”
Here’s how the tests were conducted:
“The first pilot stepped to a clean jet in the CB ensemble and we contaminated it using a simulated agent. The engine run pulls in the simulant so we need to make sure the air is filtered before it gets to the pilot. First, the air goes through the [On-Board Oxygen Generation System] and then the pilot-mounted CB filter to remove any remaining contaminants. There is another filtered air supply blower that provides cooling and demist air to the pilot’s hood and goggles. We also used three air sampling devices to be sure all the air provided to the pilot was clean.”
“After the ground test, a second pilot came out to simulate stepping to a “dirty jet.” He conducted an engine startup and then took off on a flight. Both pilots wore passive absorption devices on their bodies that the simulated contaminant would stick to if it made it through the CB ensemble. Data was taken from both pilots to see if anything was different from the separate startup scenarios.”
According to the flying branch, this was the only time this specific flight gear was flown in the JSF and is the first ever simulated contaminated aircraft flown for this kind of data collection.
“Among the data we’re collecting is how much thermal stress is added to the pilot with the CB ensemble on and the impact the additional gear may have on flying the aircraft,” Cole said
It would be interesting to know whether the flight suit for Chemical and Biological Warfare affects the pilot’s ability to see the aerial threats surrounding him, especially considering that the out-of-cockpit visibility in the F-35 is less than other Air Force fighter aircraft because of the large head rest that impede rear visibility and the ability of the pilot to check the aircraft’s 6 o’clock for incoming aerial or surface threats.
Anyway, NBC gear is usually cumbersome, difficult to dress and pretty uncomfortable. This Author has had the opportunity to take part in an NBC training with the Italian Air Force some years ago and what the drills highlighted is that operations with protective gear and gloves, with the body completely encapsulated and inherent communication difficulties, requires strict adherence with the procedures and much practice.
Otherwise, the risk is to be exposed to contamination.
Using the radio callsign “Tiger 41”, the two “Bones” (as the B-1 is nicknamed by its aircrews), belonging to the 28th BW (Bomb Wing) from Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, can be clearly seen in the darkness of the night by the flames generated by the four General Electric F101-GE-102 turbofan engines with afterburner generating 30,000-plus pounds of thrust each.
A truly impressive (and noisy) sight!
Whilst the Ellsworth’s B-1s were taking part in Red Flag 17-1, several Lancers with the 7th BW from Dyess AFB, Texas, deployed to Andersen AFB in support of U.S. Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) mission: noteworthy, these aircraft were the first B-1Bs upgraded to the Block 16 standard.
“The Block 16 makes the B-1 an all-round more capable aircraft,” said Capt. Matt*, 9th Bomb Squadron member in a recent release. “With the upgrades, we are able to have a say in the fight and increase the connectivity between aircraft on a built-in network, making the B-1 more lethal, more deadly.”
This enhanced capability not only aids the crew of the B-1, but allows other military assets to be better prepared against enemy threats.