Red Flag training exercises are held several 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 valuable experience when it comes to engaging other fighters, as the United States has not found itself in many conflicts that require a dogfight in decades (barring one shoot-down over Syria two years ago). Red Flag 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 past three weeks and 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 had 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.

The F-35 may have dominated the dog-fighting opposition in this year's Red Flag exercises
(USAF)

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 wheel”-type protections meant to ensure pilots didn’t push the planes past their limits while testing remained ongoing. However, the F-35’s full skill set has now been released to the 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.