For the first time, the U.S. Air Force is deploying the world’s most advanced fighter to the Middle East to participate in combat operations. While Marine Corps F-35Bs have already participated in combat operations over Afghanistan, this deployment marks the first outing for the Air Force’s F-35A iteration of the platform.

The first F-35As reached Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, completing their long journey from the 388th and the 419th Fighter Wings, both out of Hill Air Force Base in Utah.

“We are adding a cutting-edge weapons system to our arsenal that significantly enhances the capability of the coalition,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph T. Guastella, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command. “The sensor fusion and survivability this aircraft provides to the joint force will enhance security and stability across the theater and deter aggressors.”

Air Force F-35s have been deployed to the Middle East
A 380th Air Expeditionary Maintenance Group crew chief meets an F-35A Lightning II’s pilot at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 15, 2019. The F-35A Lightning II is deployed to the Air Forces Central Command Area of Responsibility for the first time in U.S. Air Force history. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury)

The U.S. military is currently operating with no bomber presence in the Middle East, following the recent rotation of B-1B Lancer bombers out of theater, so it can be expected that the F-35 will adopt some of its air support responsibilities, but U.S. officials are remaining tight-lipped about what exactly the F-35 will be doing while deployed to the UAE.

“During their deployment, the airmen will fly operational and other missions as assigned,” Air Force Central Command spokeswoman Maj. Holly Brauer said. “Consistent with operations security, we will not discuss employment details in advance. The F-35A and their crews will bring the advanced capabilities to the CENTCOM commander’s wide range of options.”

Air Force F-35s have been deployed to the Middle East
Two F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron fly overhead prior to their first landing at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 15, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Mya M. Crosby)

The F-35 is widely considered to be the most advanced fighter on the planet, not only because of the low observability granted by its stealth profile and heat dissipating design, but also because of its data fusion capabilities. The fighter is able to gather data from a wide range of sensor suites and integrate all of that information into a single, unified scope of the battlefield. The F-35 can then relay pertinent information about the battlespace to nearby ground and air assets, allowing the F-35 to bolster the combat capabilities of other platforms in its presence.

“The F-35A provides our nation air dominance in any threat,” said Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force. “When it comes to having a ‘quarterback’ for the coalition joint force, the inter-operable F-35A is clearly the aircraft for the leadership role,” he stated.

Last September, Marine Corps F-35Bs were the first American Joint Strike Fighters to get into the fight, conducting air strike operations against targets in Afghanistan. The very first F-35s to enter the fight, however, flew under an Israeli flag months earlier.