Marine Corps' F-35B Joint Strike Fighter Debuts at Red Flag (UPDATED)

F-35Bs participate in exercise Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base. (Defense Dept.)

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada — The Marine Corps' F-35B joint strike fighter recently made its debut at the famous Exercise Red Flag, which puts aircraft and pilots through rigorous advanced aerial combat training, officials announced July 19.

“It’s an exciting time for us,” said Lt. Col. J.T. Bardo, commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121. “These opportunities are rare … so we are very excited to be here to bring the F-35 to the exercise, capitalize on its strengths and integrate with all the other … [aircraft] that are out there.”

The Marines brought a detachment of six airplanes to the exercise, he said during a media briefing at Nellis Air Force Base. VMFA-121 is the first operational F-35 squadron.

The aircraft’s debut followed other high profile events for the aircraft including its attendance at Farnborough Airshow in the United Kingdom in July and the standing up of a second F-35B squadron in late June. The Marine Corps reached initial operating capability last summer with the establishment of VMFA-121.

The current Red Flag began on July 11 and runs through July 29. The F-35B has participated in every exercise and has performed well, Bardo said. Scenarios include air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

Having the joint strike fighter at Red Flag is invaluable training, said Air Force Col. Bradley Bird, vice wing commander of the 552 air control wing at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, who is at Red Flag monitoring safety.

The services can better understand the strengths of the plane and how it can be “integrated with all of the other fighters to include fifth-gen F-22 … [and] fourth-generation F-15, F-16, etc.,” he said. It “is invaluable to be able to bring them out and get our first look. The Air Force F-35s are going to IOC on 5 October at Hill Air Force Base so it’s only going to grow from there, but this week we get the first look at it.”

A spokeswoman for Air Combat Command said a firm date for IOC has not yet been announced, but will occur between August and December.

Red Flag is so far the largest exercise that the F-35B has participated in, Bardo said. “Since IOC we have done numerous different events between the Marine Corps and the Navy and the Air Force,” he said. “This is probably the first exercise of this magnitude.”

The aircraft has also been dropping live ordnance during Red Flag, including laser-guided and precision guided-weapons weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds.

About 100 aircraft and 3,500 personnel are attending Red Flag 16-3, Bird said. It integrates air, cyber and space assets. The exercise takes place four times a year with the next scheduled in August.
“There is no exercise like this anywhere else in the world, period. There’s really no exercise like this in the history of airpower and that’s a pretty bold statement,” Bird said. Personnel from the Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, Army and Special Operations Forces are all participating, he added.

“[We] all get together in these extreme … scenarios,” he said. “We get a chance to get in the room together and work it out. The only other place that’s going to happen is in a real conflict.”

While there are a number of flashpoints in the world, Red Flag designers did not adjust its training scenarios based on any of them, Bird said. 

“I don’t think any changes would be necessary,” he said. “The training that our warriors get in this exercise is to a level that’s well above [anything] you would see anywhere in the world at this time.

And we do that and put the stress on them so when they go to real operational missions, they are able to easily … adapt to whatever situation is going on.”

Editor's Note: The original post has been updated with comments from Air Combat Command.

Photo: Defense Dept.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training

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