Eight F-35A Lightning IIs from the 34th Fighter Squadron ‘Rude Rams’ along with pilots, maintenance specialists, security and other support personnel from the active component 34th Fighter Squadron and the Air Force Reserve’s 466th Fighter Squadron, both based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah recently undertook a three week deployment to RAF Lakenheath. Mark Kwiatkowski reports from the Suffolk base, with additional images from Craig Sluman and Duncan Monk.

This historic deployment was the first operational US Air Force F-35 Lightning II deployment to Europe (putting aside the visit of Luke AFB F-35As to RIAT 2016), and is a natural progression following the first Red Flag deployment in January (for more, see our Exercise Red Flag 17-1 article) and was also the first large F-35 movement since the US Air Force declared the aircraft combat ready in August 2016.

The aircraft arrived over the space of five days in two flights, having completed the transatlantic crossing with tanker support. The first batch of six arrived on Saturday 15th April in the afternoon under the callsigns THUD 11/14 and ALTA 21/22/23/24 the remaining two aircraft arrived on Wednesday 19th April under the callsigns THUD 11/12.

The original plan was for all eight to arrive together, however a small snag during the initial flight to Lakenheath delayed two of the aircraft. Noticing a fuel tank float valve that didn’t seem to be reading correctly, one of the pilots opted to have maintenance check it out as a routine safety precaution. That aircraft and an additional F-35 acting as its wingman stayed behind at Bangor, Maine before making the journey to join the rest of the deployed force at RAF Lakenheath on Wednesday 19th April.

The transatlantic flight for this training deployment was supported by Air Mobility Command and the 100th Air Refuelling Wing, RAF Mildenhall. Multiple KC-135R Stratotankers aircraft from four different bases offloaded more than 400,000 pounds of fuel during the tanker bridge from the United States to Europe. Additionally, C-17 and C-5 aircraft moved airlift support, including maintenance equipment and personnel (215 in total).

Once the last two aircraft arrived on the Wednesday, the pilots began preparations to start training with US Air Force F-15Cs and F-15Es from RAF Lakenheath, Royal Air Force Typhoons from RAF, and Norwegian and Dutch F-16s. Lt. Col. George Watkins, Commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron characterised the deployment to Europe as a natural progression that started with a proof-of-concept deployment last year to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, followed by the squadron’s recent trip to Nellis AFB, Nevada for Red Flag.

“All that was done locally in the United States and then this is our first overseas deployment with the F-35, so we’re just taking it step by step. We came to a base where they are looking forward to hosting F-35s in the future as an organic squadron here, so we’re kind of taking ideas and learning from these guys and doing some local training and then we’ll return back to Hill.”

This deployment to Europe has been long-touted by the USAF, with the former chief of Air Combat Command (ACC), General Herbert Carlisle, saying ahead of the Farnborough International Airshow in July 2016 that he had “no qualms” about sending the F-35A into operations as soon as initial operating capability (IOC) was declared – that IOC milestone being achieved in August 2016 with the aircraft fitted with the Block 3i software (initial full combat capability).

“That is the whole purpose of IOC. We have a capability plan that we are working on that would first see the F-35 deployed on a TSP [Theatre Security Package] to either Europe or the Pacific. Will it be in the Middle East? Yes, absolutely. That isn’t in our near-term plan, but I would send the F-35 into combat in a heartbeat if a commander asked for it.”

Over the first week, F-35 pilots conducted air-to-air exercises with U.S. Air Force F-15Cs and F-15Es permanently located at Lakenheath, as well as engagements against other F-35As acting as adversary air. Pilots practiced dogfighting one-on-one and combat manoeuvres in two-on-two formations with simulated weapons, including the laser-guided GBU-12, 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles. From there, activities ramped up to small and large force exercises with RAF Eurofighter Typhoons and Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s. The F-35 pilots even had a chance to sample some UK low level flying around the now famous LFA7, or “Mach loop” as it is more commonly known as.

Typically during the course of the three-week deployment, the F-35s were departing as a six-ship group in the morning sortie along with F-15Es and F-15Cs, with the afternoon sorties consisting of a four-ship group. Callsigns used by the F-35s during this period were CUSTER, CONAN, GATOR, JUMP, RUDE, RAM, SLAM, RAMBO, GRIM, HITMAN, DEUCE, WASP, FLEX, GRIM, DEADLY, CASINO, MAUL, EAGLE. Many of the callsigns being used were assigned to the 493rd Fighter Squadron, who were hosting the 34th Fighter Squadron while they were at RAF Lakenheath.

Integrating with the F-35 was a new experience for many of the F-15 pilots, said Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Taylor, an F-15C pilot and the 493rd Fighter Squadron’s director of operations.

“The sensor fusion capability of the F-35A gives our F-15s unprecedented situational awareness, which is invaluable when you’re fighting against a high-end threat. The key is it allows us to make quicker, more accurate decisions on targets.”

Lt. Col. Watkins also gave an insight into the mission profiles flown by the F-35’s along with the benefits of the impressive stealth and sensor capabilities –

“We’ve been flying basic fighter manoeuvres and air combat manoeuvres, as well as air-to-ground missions. We fight air to air to get to simulated ground targets and once we take them out, we fight air to air to get back to our designated ‘safe’ zone.”

“The stealth of the aircraft allows us to go where other aircraft cannot and our sensors and communication allow us to identify targets and allow fourth generation aircraft to dominate the airspace.”

The squadrons have also been flying against each other. The F-15Cs are well known for being an air-dominance platform and the F-35A pilots enjoyed the unique opportunity to fly against other airmen in a foreign country in an airspace they’ve never before flown in with the F-35A as reenforced by Major Luke Harris, a 34th Fighter Squadron F-35A pilot –

“For me, it’s my first time dogfighting against an F-15. Dogfighting is a test of pilot skill, but it’s also constrained by the aircraft’s capabilities, and I’ve been really impressed by the flight control and manoeuvrability of the F-35.”

However, with the F-35A’s stealth capability dogfights aren’t likely, Harris said. Stealth, he said, allows pilots to fly undetected to a “visual merge” and engage air targets before enemies have time to react defensively, which is an advantage over the fourth-generation tactics he employed when he flew the F-16 –

“All the guys we’ve flown with have said that having the F-35 in the fight has been an eye-opening experience and they’re glad that these capabilities are on their side”

The training scenarios have allowed fourth- and fifth-generation pilots to compare notes and better prepare for future air combat as highlighted by Lt. Col. Taylor –

“We fight best when we fight together. We’ve had a lot of synergy in our training. When we come back and talk after missions, we can have that face-to-face interaction and review our tactics. That’s just going to improve the way we fight with the F-35A and has made this an outstanding deployment.”

All training exercises took place over UK airspace which was aimed at minimising the risk of miscalculation by Russia or other nations. However, as part of the training deployment, the aircraft forwarded deployed to NATO nations of Estonia and Bulgaria to maximize training opportunities, build partnerships with allied air forces and gain a broad familiarity with Europe’s diverse operating conditions. The introduction of the premier fifth-generation fighter to the European area of responsibility brings with it state-of-the-arts sensors, interoperability, and a broad array of advanced air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions that will help maintain the fundamental sovereignty rights of all nations.

On the 25th of April, U.S. Air Forces in Europe formally announced that two F-35As stealthy fighter jets and approximately 20 airmen had arrived at Ämari Air Base in the Baltic country’s Harjumaa County. The base sits less than 150 miles west of the Russian border and about 300 miles northeast of Russia’s geographically separated enclave of Kaliningrad. It’s not clear whether the 20-person total included the crew of a KC-135R tanker from the U.S. Air Force’s U.K.-based 100th Air Refueling Wing, which also deployed to support the mission, security forces to guard the jets, or any other personnel.

What was also noteworthy of the forward deployment of the F-35s to Estonia was the increase in activity of U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft in the Baltic region. In fact, as the F-35s headed towards Amari in formation with their KC-135R tanker, as many as three RC-135s operated in the airspace over or close to Estonia. The U.S. Air Force dispatched an RC-135W Rivet Joint 62-4139 “HAITI 79” and an RC-135U Combat Sent 64-14847 “SPOOL 06” to the Baltic States along with an RAF RC-135W Airseeker. Was it to collect technical intelligence on Russian radar systems interested in the F-35 or deter the Russians from using their radars? It is all pure speculation but intriguing none the less.

A similar deployment was carried out on the 28th of April, this time to Bulgaria, when a pair of F-35 visited Graf Ignatievo Air Base. This training deployment had been planned for some time and was conducted in close coordination with Bulgarian allies. It gave the F-35A pilots the opportunity to engage in familiarization training within the European theatre while reassuring allies and partners of U.S. dedication to maintaining the stability of the region.

Maj. Gen. Tsanko Stoykov, the Bulgarian Air Force Commander, had this to say on the arrivals of the F-35s to Bulgaria:

“I have to say that for us, this makes us very proud. Our efforts have been appreciated and we are trusted as a reliable ally and it immensely contributes to the development of the bilateral relations between our two counties and our two air forces.”

This training deployment to RAF Lakenheath signified an important milestone and natural progression of the F-35 Program, allowing the U.S. to further demonstrate the operational capabilities of the aircraft. It also assists in refining the bed down requirements for the F-35A at RAF Lakenheath (due to occur after 2020) in order to enhance Europe’s ability to host the future capabilities of the Air Force and coalition team. Furthermore, it helps to integrate with NATO’s infrastructure and enhance fifth-generation aircraft interoperability.

The F-35A Lightning II deployment ran from April 19 through to the May 4 with the first wave (totalling eight aircraft, two spares returning back to RAF Lakenheath) departing back home on the May 4 and the final four aircraft departing on May 7. During the deployment, the F-35’s flew a total of 76 sorties totaling more than 154 hours of flight. Below is a list of aircraft that took part in the exercises:

F-35A Lightning II 13-5072/HL – 388th Fighter Wing / 34th Fighter Squadron
F-35A Lightning II 13-5081/HL – 388th Fighter Wing / 34th Fighter Squadron
F-35A Lightning II 14-5091/HL – 388th Fighter Wing / 34th Fighter Squadron
F-35A Lightning II 14-5094/HL – 388th Fighter Wing / 34th Fighter Squadron
F-35A Lightning II 14-5096/HL – 388th Fighter Wing / 34th Fighter Squadron
F-35A Lightning II 14-5097/HL – 388th Fighter Wing / 34th Fighter Squadron
F-35A Lightning II 14-5098/HL – 388th Fighter Wing / 34th Fighter Squadron
F-35A Lightning II 14-5102/HL – 388th Fighter Wing / 34th Fighter Squadron

For their parts in the production of this article, AeroResource would like to extend their sincere thanks to the personnel of the RAF Lakenheath Public Affairs Office for their hospitality and cooperation throughout the duration of this deployment.