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F-35A joins RED FLAG-Alaska, soars to new heights

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A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, soars overhead during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 7, 2020. All RF-A exercises take place in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex over Alaska as well as a portion of Western Canadian airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron Larue Guerrisky)

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A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 7, 2020. RF-A provides joint offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support, and large-force employment training in a simulated combat environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron Larue Guerrisky)

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A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, approaches the flight line during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 10, 2020. RF-A executes the world's premier tactical joint and coalition air combat employment exercise, designed to replicate the stresses that warfighters face during their first eight to ten combat sorties. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron Larue Guerrisky)

An F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron climbs into a cockpit during RED FLAG-Alaska 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 4 2020. This iteration of RF-A was the first to feature F-35s, the newest generation of fighter aircraft in the Air Force inventory. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Annalou Huerta)

An F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron climbs into a cockpit during RED FLAG-Alaska 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 4 2020. This iteration of RF-A was the first to feature F-35s, the newest generation of fighter aircraft in the Air Force inventory. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Annalou Huerta)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --

Throughout the years, numerous types of aircraft have flown in the Alaskan skies during RED FLAG-Alaska. This year, a new fifth-generation fighter joins the fight.

The 356th Fighter Squadron and 388th Fighter Wing’s F-35A Lightning IIs are the first F-35s to participate in the U.S. Pacific Air Forces-sponsored exercise.  

“The purpose of RED FLAG-Alaska is to provide training for the aircrew participating on the blue-air side in order to increase mission readiness and prepare them for combat operations,” said Lt. Col. Randolph Kinsey, the 18th Aggressor Squadron commander.

Unlike recent RF-A exercises, the F-35s have given the 354th Fighter Wing the chance to have the ‘home team’ play as blue air to enhance their warfighting capabilities.

“We’ve been flying F-35s for the past three months and this is the first RED FLAG exercise for the 356th FS,” said Lt. Col. James Christensen, the 356th FS commander.

The presence of fifth-generation aircraft will make this iteration of RF-A a bit different from past exercises. 

“The F-35 brings more information to the airspace than we've had in previous generations of aircraft,” said Christensen. “This RED FLAG is really unique because we now have all fifth-generation fighters on the blue side. When we combine those forces together we can be more lethal.”

Once the 356th FS received its first F-35s in April, the F-35 pilots wasted no time learning the ins and outs of RF-A’s 77,000-square mile playground, also known as the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex.

“What we had to do is get our pilots ready for this RED FLAG by flying as much as we possibly could to get proficient in the airplane,” said  Christensen. “For us, this is kind of the intro to the airspace and an intro to four-ship tactics. This is the first time we’ve flown four aircraft together at the same time and we are combining the other F-35s and F-22s to make a large force exercise.”

Christensen mentioned pilots train on a basic fundamental skills-type progression, which means pilots start at basic skills and work up to advanced tactics. RF-A offers a realistic combat feeling for pilots to train exactly how they fight, he said. 

“They can simulate that environment here at RED FLAG with the 353rd CTS (Combat Training Squadron) and in the JPARC. They can give us the realistic threats, jam our communications, jam our navigation systems and they can give us these problems that I want my young wingmen and my experienced flight leads to experience,” said Christensen.

Now that the 354th Fighter Wing established the F-35 in Alaska and will grow in size with a second F-35 squadron, the goal for future exercises is to see even more fifth-generation aircraft from Pacific partners join the fight.

“What we need to do in the future and what we have planned for the next RED FLAG iteration later this year is we are going to start bringing in partner countries and allies from across INDOPACOM,” said Christensen. “There are F-35s that are going out to Australia, Japan and Korea, and in the future we want to bring those F-35s up here and practice and train...so that we have a standard set of tactics, techniques and procedures.”