Red Flag training exercises are held a number of times a year and pit some of the U.S. Air Force’s best pilots and equipment against one another in simulated combat meant to approximate what an air-war with a near-peer opponent might be like. These drills offer pilots invaluable experience when it comes to engaging other fighters, as the United States has not found itself in many conflicts that require dog-fighting in decades (barring one shoot-down over Syria two years ago). Red Flag, then, helps ensure America’s pilots are ready to fly into the fight if ever a war with a nation like China or Russia were to arise.
The most recent Red Flag drills were held over the span of the past three weeks saw participation from a dozen Air Force F-35As from the 388th Fighter Wing’s 4th Fighter Squadron, along with many other types of combat aircraft. Two years ago, when the F-35 has just reached its “Initial Operational Capability,” the F-35 absolutely dominated the competition with a reported 20:1 kill ratio, meaning 20 enemy aircraft were shot down (notionally) for every one F-35 lost.
However, it wasn’t until a software update released late last year that the F-35’s full combat potential was unlocked. Prior to this update, the F-35 was limited to around half of its designed turning capabilities along with a number of other “training wheels” type protections meant to ensure pilots didn’t push these planes past their limits while testing remained ongoing. However, now, the F-35’s full skill set has been released to their pilots, and although no figures have emerged regarding the F-35’s success, some quotes from the event already paint a dominant picture for the Joint Strike Fighter.
According to reports from Airmen assigned to the 388th FW, the first large scale drills saw the F-35s joining a large “Blue Air” force tasked with a “counter air” mission against 60 inbound enemy aircraft. These enemy planes reportedly used “robust” electronic attack capabilities to limit the effectiveness of the fourth generation fighters in the “Blue Air” contingent, leaving them reliant on the relatively small number of F-35s in the air with them to sift through the noise and provide a reliable picture of how the combat unfolded.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before. This is not a mission you want a young pilot flying in,” Colonel Joshua Wood said of the chaos in the skies as 60 enemy aircraft engaged their “Blue Air” force. “My wingman was a brand new F-35A pilot, seven or eight flights out of training.”
This is an important element to note: as capable as an F-35 may be, pilot expertise is widely viewed as the most valuable element of a fighter’s performance. Fighter pilots will often tell you that a highly experienced pilot in a fourth generation platform actually has the advantage over an inexperienced 5th generation (F-35, F-22) pilot in a dog fight… but it would seem unlocking the F-35’s full capabilities may change that dynamic in the Joint Strike Fighter’s favor. According to Wood, his brand new F-35 wingman not only helped ensure his more experienced fourth-generation friends survived the fight, he nabbed a number of kills himself.
“He gets on the radio and tells an experienced, 3,000-hour pilot in a very capable fourth-generation aircraft. ‘Hey bud, you need to turn around. You’re about to die. There’s a threat off your nose.’” Wood went on to say the relative “newbie” garnered four total kills in the drill. “Even in this extremely challenging environment, the F-35 didn’t have many difficulties doing its job, that’s a testament to the pilot’s training and the capabilities of the jet.”
(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)