Covert Lightning – The A-Model F-35

Covert Lightning – The A-Model F-35

The now combat-tested F-35A has become ubiquitous around the world, and the aircraft can be found residing as the top dog of choice within the various air forces. Born in controversy as are almost all new programs, the F-35 continues to be manufactured at a high rate, aside from some Covid delays. The cost was probably the number one gripe, with program delays coming in second. Regardless, the F-35 is in the process of being as popular as the F-16 was when it made its entry back in the day.

The F-35 is a spiral develop program and it receives periodic validation and software updates to add new weapons and systems to the arsenal of what it can carry. Now that most of the bugs have been stomped out, the F-35 is more reliable than ever and has become a well-oiled fighting machine, with most of the F-35A deployments and exercises having demonstrated over 80% mission-capable rates.

The F-35A has an internal weapons bay that removes externally mounted weapons from the eyes of the radar signature. The “clean” loadout would be used early on in a conflict, and after the enemy air defenses are suppressed and air superiority achieved, stealth would take a backseat to loadouts.

The F-35A has an internal weapons bay that removes externally mounted weapons from the eyes of the radar signature. The “clean” loadout would be used early on in a conflict, and after the enemy air defenses are suppressed and air superiority achieved, stealth would take a backseat to loadouts.

There are three primary F-35 variants: the A, B, and C-models. There is also the Israeli I-model, essentially a modified A-model with special Israeli enhancements. The A-model is the ground-based Conventional Takeoff and Landing (CVTOL) model that boasts an internal gun, the B is the Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) usually found frequenting assault ships but lacks an internal gun, and the C-model, also lacking an internal gun, is the aircraft carrier variant (has larger wings and beefier landing gear). All three versions can be equipped with the GAU-22/A 25mm gun though, whether internally mounted or inside a gun pod that can be externally carried.

Being a stealth aircraft, a limited amount of weapons can be held in the weapons bay to keep the radar cross-section down to nil. After air superiority has been achieved with enemy air defenses suppressed, the finesse of stealth is thrown out the window, and it re-emerges in “beast mode..” Wing racks adorning a plethora of designer weapons, coupled with ECM and gun pods, can be strapped on the lower half of the jet. Essentially, stealth is no longer as important in theater, and all the other bells and whistles can be utilized to help expedite the end of the conflict.

To date, F-35 combat exploits have been centered at attacking ground targets. The USAF employed the F-35A against an ISIS tunnel network and weapons cache in Iraq, the USMC used F-35Bs (13th MEU) against targets in Afghanistan, and the Israelis used their F-35Is to attack ground targets in the Middle East at undisclosed locations (possibly Iranian targets inside Iraq).

After air superiority has been achieved with enemy air defenses suppressed, the finesse of stealth is thrown out the window, and it re-emerges in “beast mode..”

Teaching the New Guys

So what is it like teaching the new F-35 drivers? “The 944th OG/Det. 2 supports both sides, the FMS and the Partner Nations,” said Lt Col Eric “Bodhi” Puels, the 944th OG/Det. 2 “Ninjas” commander. He previously flew F-16C/Ds at Misawa in Japan, has been at Luke AFB since 2006, has worked on the F-35 program since 2008, and in 2015, transitioned from the F-16C/D to the F-35A. He has 2,400 F-16 flight hours and 600 in the F-35A. “We have two Fighter Wings on the base, the active duty 56th FW and the Reserve’s 944th FW. The 944th Operations Group is associated with the 56th FW to help them accomplish their fighter training mission.

“Our mission readiness rate is always in the 90-plus percentage range. We consider ourselves the best in the business at the fighter training mission and have been doing this for decades with the F-16. Much of our F-35 training has been modeled off of what we have learned from the F-16. Our student training syllabus starts off in simulators with basic flying, instrument familiarization, and quite a few emergency procedures. Then we get into transition flying, taking actual aircraft into the airspace and get a feel for how it flies, perform instrument work, get used to the avionics, and have students comfortable in the jet.

The F-35A is a pilot’s dream, including a huge touch screen display. It has a vast array of custom-tailored mission loadouts available and a robust fuel-efficient combat range, minimizing fuel concerns during the fight.

The F-35A is a pilot’s dream, including a huge touch screen display. It has a vast array of custom-tailored mission loadouts available and a robust fuel-efficient combat range, minimizing fuel concerns during the fight.

“Then we very quickly go into the tactical phase, which includes basic fighter maneuvering, air combat maneuvering, and tactical intercepts. Next comes basic surface attack and that differs than what we do in the F-16, since we only carry precision-guided munitions such as the GBU-31s and GBU-12s in the F-35. Unlike the F-16, the F-35 has an air-to-surface radar, which is new for a lot of us unless you came out of the Strike Eagle community. Following ground attack, we get into four-ship training, followed by the suppression of enemy air defenses.

“Defensive Counter Air, Offensive Counter Air, and fighter escort are next on the agenda. A lot of that training is done in the simulator because of the fidelity of the threats and range limitations. The simulators are extremely robust and pilots feel like they are flying the real deal, it is very representative of what they have experienced flying the actual aircraft. The software is one of the most commonly updated F-35 items, a required process for aircraft systems expansion.”

An Australian F-35A relaxes between training sorties. The Aussies are replacing their legacy Hornets with Lightning IIs and have a significant investment into the program.

An Australian F-35A relaxes between training sorties. The Aussies are replacing their legacy Hornets with Lightning IIs and have a significant investment into the program.

Lightnings Down Under

“We had RAAF squadron maintainers at Luke AFB learning the F-35A, and the pilots and maintainers made up the cadre of the first Australian F-35A squadron back home,” commented Wing Commander Darren “Clarey” Clare, who is the Commanding Officer of RAAF Squadron 3 under the 81st Wing in Williamtown (close to Sydney) and who was also an F-35A instructor pilot with the 61st FS at Luke. He has a total of 3,900 flight hours, did stints as a PC-9 and Hawk pilot instructor, served in Iraqi Freedom in 2003 originally flying legacy Hornets, and later flew the Super Hornet as the Director of Operations for the training squadron.

He continued, “The pilots transitioned from legacy Hornets to the F-35A, and we had a variety of 20 or so maintainers that became subject matter experts, then returned home. The first operational squadron is 3 Squadron, which stopped flying F/A-18As in 2017, and the unit initially performed test and validation roles. The next squadron to receive aircraft was our training squadron, 2 Operational Conversion Unit and that will be followed by 75 and 77 squadrons. Their F/A-18As will eventually be phased out of service as our Lightning IIs materialize, and there will be four total F-35 squadrons in the end, for now.

“Luke made a great stepping stone for our needs; it is the biggest fighter base in the world and they have been training pilots for a very long time. To be able to step into a running system is perfect, and to be taken in as a part of the 61st and see what is needed for an F-35A unit gave us a leg up. We have learned a lot and are very grateful to the 61st FS and 56th FW for hosting us. The Luke ramp is full of F-35As, and we would not be able to do this so quickly back home in Australia. With the experience that we bring to the table as our allies do, we all learn from one another.

“We did advanced training at Luke, such as four-ship missions and depend more on a wingman to make independent tactical decisions. We data shared with assets like our Wedgetails, Growlers, and more to get the entire shared situational and threat picture, becoming a communication or weapons node as seen fit for the mission. We truly operate as one team, rather than being in a bubble flying your independent specialty aircraft as in the past.

“The stick and rudder portion is sort of like flying a Hornet, but with the new weapons, sensor integration and data linking capabilities allowing us to data share with all of the other platforms, that changes the way we fight and it is exciting. I can see this aircraft being something very special for the next 40 years!”

Cooter
Lt. Col Curtis “Cooter” Dougherty is the 56th FW Director of Staff and an F-35A instructor pilot. He graduated from the Air Force Academy and following training, flew F-15E Strike Eagles out of Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina and later with USAFE at Lakenheath, England. He did a stint at Nellis AFB as a Weapons Tactics Instructor and returned to Seymour Johnson with the 335th FS “Chiefs,” amassing 2,200 F-15E hours. He then flew for the Thunderbirds flight demonstration team for three and a half years, and then went to Luke flying the F-16 with over 1,000 hours in the type. He transitioned to the F-35A in 2015 and has 500 hours in the Lightning II.

“There were some challenges adopting the F-35As here, and now that the program is more mature, the squadrons are much more self-sufficient. I mostly fly with the 63rd FS as my assigned unit. Regarding the foreign nations here, we all learn from each other on a daily basis and it is truly a neat melting pot of ideas and future growth capability.

“The contract and training terms vary for each country, and all of the countries have a pooling arrangement to have an equitable use of resources as we can reasonably accomplish. The degree at which we want to train pilots, use F-35s, fuel, and maintenance resources all have to be committed up to a level. All of the countries at Luke have meetings to decide what is fair and equitable based on what is available, being unlike any environment I have operated in. It is amazing to walk into a large force exercise, like being at a Red Flag, but in this case, we are all flying the same kind of aircraft. We train together, socialize, and our families even know each other.”

The F-35A is equipped with an internal 4-barrel 25mm GAU-22/A cannon that fires at just over 3,000 rounds per minute. The fairing on the aircraft’s left side, just above the jet intake, is where the gun resides.

The F-35A is equipped with an internal 4-barrel 25mm GAU-22/A cannon that fires at just over 3,000 rounds per minute. The fairing on the aircraft’s left side, just above the jet intake, is where the gun resides.

“To have that degree of camaraderie that extends around the globe, doing 24-jet large force exercises, idea sharing, along with the benefits of pilots with over 15 years of experience in a variety of platforms, is very interesting to see. The FMS side is different and is more contract-based. That is handled separately by the 944th FW, and their requirements are less-fluidic, and mapped out in more detail, in advance. With Luke being a formal training fighter base, we take students that know nothing about the F-35A and teach them to fly it, which takes a special skill set. The more advanced and specific niche mission sets will be done at their home stations.

“Luke has a lot of desirable traits for formal student pilot training, the most important ticket item being our instructor expertise. The weather here is mostly sunny and the winds plus crosswinds here are rarely an issue. The base has dual runways, and because the F-35 is a single engine aircraft, we do a fair amount of practice flameouts using the outside runway, while the inside runway is used for normal operations. The base location is good for being away from general and commercial aviation activity.

“We have airspace ranges that are close, both to the south and to the west. That does bring up a challenge though. With the F-35A carrying 18,000 pounds of internal fuel, the range and endurance is superior to that of the F-16. The other factor is the F-35A tactically uses a lot more airspace in order to maximize the benefit of a fifth-generation platform, both in air-to-air and air-to-ground scenarios. We are currently working with the FAA to expand our airspace options.

“We are evaluating the F-16 as being a good fourth generation aggressor for dissimilar air-to-air training, so it is possible not all F-16 activity will eventually be moved to Holloman AFB, NM in the future. As for the long-term future, say in 2025, I’d guess we would see six USAF F-35A squadrons, a small Norwegian presence, and probably an FMS client.”

Although not a slouch in air combat maneuvering, assets such as the F-22A may be able to outmaneuver the Lightning II in tight. However, in actual combat, that may not matter too much as the F-35 cannot be seen at a distance on radar and has reliable, long-range, air-to-air missiles to take care of foes early on.

Although not a slouch in air combat maneuvering, assets such as the F-22A may be able to outmaneuver the Lightning II in tight. However, in actual combat, that may not matter too much as the F-35 cannot be seen at a distance on radar and has reliable, long-range, air-to-air missiles to take care of foes early on.

F-35 Future
Lightning resistant fuel tanks will be installed. The latest software version is the 4A software, which replaces the 3f, and F-35As are now being upgraded from the 3f to the 4A now. The newer 3f and 4A software versions allow the use of the gun, AIM-9X Sidewinder, small-diameter bomb, JDAM, AIM-120 AMRAAM, laser-guided bombs, and other classified goodies. A new possible engine upgrade for the F-35A and C is being explored, known as the Adaptive Engine Transition Program. This could involve proposals and testing of the more efficient and higher-thrust GE XA100 and Pratt and Whitney XA101, when ready.

The Nine Partner Nations & Foreign Military Sales
The Partner Nation and Foreign Military Sales schedules and timelines are always subject to change. This is due to a variety of reasons, including aircraft production flow, pilot availability, individual learning process, budgets, and politics. The F-35 is international and involves numerous foreign allies.

United States: The F-35A leader and pioneers, with F-35s now ubiquitous in the USAF, USMC, and USN. Over 1760 F-35As total.
Australia: Replacing their F/A-18A Hornets, with 72 F-35s on order. There is a long-term possibility that another buy of 28 F-35s may also replace the F/A-18F Super Hornets currently residing within No. 4 Squadron.
Denmark: 27 F-35As on order. Recently began receiving aircraft.
Italy: The Italians have both the A-models and B-models. There is a planned buy of 60 A-models and 30 B-models.
Norway: The Norwegians have 52 A-models on order and received their first F-35 in country in November, 2017.
Turkey: Was going to order 100, and that was cancelled after Turkey had also purchased a Russian air defense system.
Netherlands: Have received numerous F35As, with a total planned buy of 46 (possibly more later) F-35As that are slated to replace their F-16s. Their fleet is now IOC (Initial Operational Capability).
UK (Britain): The UK have received numerous F-35Bs (have ordered 48 Bs). Long term, the Brits could procure two more batches of F-35Bs, 60 and 80 respectively.
Canada: Although a Partner Nation, an order is to be determined. The Canadians just declined the Super Hornet, leaving the acquisition contest between the Swedish Saab 39 Gripen E and the F-35A. A final decision is expected in 2022 and if the F-35A is selected, it would be an order for 88 aircraft.

Foreign Military Sales Nations
Belgium: (F-16 replacement) 34 F-35As on order.
Finland: (F/A-18C/D replacement) 64 F-35As are on order as of 2021.
Israel: 75 F-35A (I) models on order. They have operated the F-35A since 2016, have two squadrons, and have been IOC. The Israeli Air Force gave the F-35A the Hebrew name “Adir,” meaning “Mighty One” in Hebrew. Their specialty version is the F-35I, a modified A-model.
Japan: F-35As and F-35Bs. The Japanese training was completed at the end of March, 2018, and all Japanese F-35s have since traveled to their new home in Misawa, Japan. There is a current buy of 105 A-models and 42 B-models in process. The F-35A is replacing the F-4EJ Phantom II.
Poland: 32 F-35As on order.
Singapore: 4 F-35Bs on order.
South Korea: Buying 60 F-35As and 20 F-35Bs. ROKAF received their first aircraft, an F-35A, at the end of March, 2018.
Switzerland: 36 F-35As are now on order as of 2021.

Other possible prospects with discussion in works: Czech Republic 40 As, Germany 35-45+, Greece 48 As, Spain 25 Bs, Thailand 4-8 As, and UAE 50 As.


Text & photos by Ted Carlson/Fotodynamics.com

Updated: June 4, 2024 — 4:58 PM

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