Hill Airmen demonstrate combat flexibility, reliability of F-35 during deployments

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  • By Micah Garbarino

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – For 16 months, Airmen from the 388th Fighter Wing here have been deployed in combat with the F-35A Lightning II and they continue to find ways to improve the capability of America’s most advanced fifth-generation fighter.

Each of the wing’s three squadrons, alongside Reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, have deployed in support of the Air Force Central Command mission at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates. The 4th Fighter Squadron, deployed in April 2019, was the first.  The 34th FS deployed in October 2019 and returned home in June and July. The 421st FS is currently deployed.

“Our Airmen continue to carry out the combat mission the Air Force asks of us,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “Not only that, but they are truly on the leading edge of developing how our service employs this very capable fighter, now and in the future.” 

The building blocks the 4th FS deployment put in place, helped when the 34th Fighter Squadron was tasked with the first short-notice F-35 deployment, and the largest F-35 combat deployment to date.

“I was flying a local exercise sortie at Hill at the time. I got recalled by the command post while I was airborne to return to base,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Cavazos, 34th Fighter Squadron commander. “That normally means somebody got hurt or we’re being deployed. It ended up being that we were heading out for AFCENT on a short-notice tasking. A couple weeks later we had people flying combat sorties.”

When the squadron arrived at Al Dhafra they generated their first combat sortie within 24 hours, and they didn’t lose a single sortie to a maintenance issue for the next eight months.

“During this deployment we demonstrated to senior leaders in theater what we’ve known to be true: the F-35 is formidable, it is adaptable and it is less needy in terms of maintenance than people may expect,” said Capt. Susan McLeod, officer in charge of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.

The squadron demonstrated the flexibility of the multi-role F-35. On a given day pilots performed strafing runs on close air support missions, and maritime escorts for Navy carrier strike groups.

“We proved the F-35 can carry out a variety of missions,” Cavazos said. “While the F-35 is just another asset to be tasked, there are some other cool fifth-generation capabilities that we bring to the table and have to be used the correct way. We can go take away a chunk of airspace at a moment’s notice and give it back at a later point if we want to. It was a pretty neat role to be able to support AFCENT and were doing our best to communicate to combatant commands exactly what we can offer them.”

The deployment was the first time an F-35A unit successfully sustained agile basing at a forward location. For more than three months, a third of the squadron forward deployed and flew missions from an undisclosed location. The groundwork for how to implement agile basing was laid by the 421st FS during the “Rapid Forge” exercise in Europe last year.

This agile basing construct gave AFCENT the ability to “project power across thousands of miles and numerous countries with a single fighter unit,” Cavazos said.

“We now have unpredictability against potential adversaries,” said Cavazos. “They are so used to us showing up in country, staying in the same place for half a year, doing the same things, and leaving. They know it. We know it. Now we proved we can be more agile. That principal can carry over operationally to other regions and any potential adversaries there.”

Some doubted that split operations could be successfully sustained, Cavazos said. But, even with a deployment extended months longer by the Coronavirus pandemic (which also slowed global supply chains) the maintainers were able to support every operational requirement.

“To support the forward deployed location and the extension to our deployment at the same time was a challenge,” said Senior Master Sgt. Westley Calloway, lead production superintendent for the 34th AMU. “We had to think creatively to solve logistics and communication challenges, because in a lot of ways, we’re writing the playbook. But once those chains are established, we were able to maintain the health of our fleet and complete every task asked of us.”  

The deployment experience wasn’t just a success operationally, but also helped young pilots and maintainers experience joint operations, the unpredictable nature of warfare, and will increase confidence and perspective, Cavazos said.

“We’re becoming our own F-35 community. We aren’t just a hodge-podge from other airframes anymore,” Cavazos said. “It’s really cool to have that experience with the younger guys in the squadron and see them progress on their first deployment.”