SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- From Europe to the Middle East and the high desert of Idaho, the Air Force’s first combat-coded F-35A Lightning II squadrons demonstrated their global reach this week.
In a seven-day span, Airmen from Hill Air Force Base’s active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings have been on the ground in nine different countries on three different continents and met every tasking asked of them by the Air Force.
“This instills confidence in the Air Force when it comes to the F-35A and how we can use it,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group Commander. “It gives confidence in this weapon system to our partners and allies and how we can fly together and fight together.”
The 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron is currently deployed here as part of a European Theater Security Package. This week they have operated from Italy, Spain, Germany, Finland, Norway and France.
The 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron is deployed in support of U.S. Air Force Central Command mission at Al Dahfra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.
The 34th Fighter Squadron is flying from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, but also had aircraft and Airmen in Switzerland supporting flight evaluations as the nation’s defense procurement agency weighs the options for their next aircraft.
“So far, as a wing, we’ve made all this look easy. But it hasn’t been,” said Maj. Michael Slotten, assistant director of operations for the 421st Fighter Squadron. “It took a ton of planning, a ton of work, learning from the wings’ previous deployments and a lot of help from various commands.”
The planning, logistics and training required to make the simultaneous operations successful was underway for more than six months. Sustaining and flying the world’s most advanced fifth-generation fighter in so many locations in such a short amount of time means moving the right parts, tools and people to the right places on time.
“Our Airmen made it happen through mission planning, logistics and sometimes brute force – pushing through the issues and things that may constrain us,” said Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander. “Our leadership teams in the squadrons and maintenance units understand the mission and they are driving it. They’re not sitting back and waiting for things to happen, and they trust their people.”
In order to operate away from home station, the wings performed scheduled aircraft maintenance ahead of their departures, sent spare parts packages overseas and worked closely with Air Force leadership to ensure that they would be a supply-chain priority.
In Europe, they developed detailed plans for each trip, sending small teams of 10 or fewer Airmen forward with the aircraft to each location. Each team was led by a senior enlisted production supervisor, charged with making all the maintenance decisions.
“They can operate independently and make decisions. They have a lot of delegated authority,” Miles said. “They need to make tough decisions without anyone else around to confer with or get permission from.”
In most cases each maintainer on the team has a backpack with parts and tools, no other ground equipment. If something went wrong, they had a plan, but they didn’t think anything would go wrong and they’ve been proven correct. They haven’t missed a single required launch.
“The aircraft availability rate is what is allowing us to move all around Europe,” said Slotten. “If we were in a legacy platform, I feel like we’d be strung out all over the place by now.”
In Spain, a small team of Blended Operational Lightning Technicians received two jets that transitioned from Italy, inspected and turned them for an operational mission that afternoon, and then prepped them to fly to Germany the next day.
Hill’s Airmen are delivering what the Air Force is asking from the F-35A said Miles, agility and flexibility.
“We can do that because we know the airplane,” Miles said. “It has proven itself reliable over our last three years of flying. Ninety percent of the time, when an aircraft lands, it’s “code 1” which means we are able to turn it and launch it again. That 10 percent of the time that you have an issue, it’s either minor and we can still fly, or we can fix it pretty quickly if we have the parts.”
While in Norway, the team broke new ground when the Norwegian air force takes charge of generating a sortie with the U.S. jets. The Norwegians, an F-35A partner nation, used their maintainers, their ground equipment and their technical data to inspect, refuel and launch the aircraft while Hill’s maintainers observed. F-35A Pilots have integrated with partner nations in the air, but this is a new process for maintainers, said Miles and it went "better than we could have hoped." When it is fully developed and part of standard operations the cross-servicing will further increase the reach of the F-35A.
“That interoperability is really what the program was designed for,” said Miles. “We can deploy and fight from various locations and bring the aircraft back home quickly. So we’re pushing that part of the program forward with this integration.”
For those who have been with the F-35A program at Hill for some time, the simultaneous deployments are a reward for the last three years of hard work.
“It’s been incredible,” said Lt. Col. Brad Klemesrud, deputy commander of the 419 Operations Group and Reserve F-35A pilot. “Everyone has worked really hard to overcome the tyranny of distance. It’s important to be able to project power to different locations and we’re really proving we can do that with these trips.”
The 421st EFS and 34th FS are expected to return to Hill AFB sometime in late July or early August, when the runway construction there is complete and the 4th EFS will return to Hill at the end of their deployment rotation.
“We've gone from initial operating capability to the first combat employment and concurrent deployments in less than three years. If you look back at other platforms, it's unprecedented for a weapon system this complex,” said Miles “We’re on the eve of being fully equipped with all our aircraft later this fall, but we’ve already shown how much can be done. We’ve done it with style, grace and a lot of hard work.”
The active-duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW are the Air Force’s only combat-capable F-35 units, maintaining the jets in a Total Force partnership that utilizes the strengths of both components.