by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The U.S. Air Force has announced that F-35As will practice air strikes at a major exercise. For two weeks, Air Force pilots will bombard mock targets and fly support missions as soldiers train below.
But just what the F-35 pilots will get out of their trip isn’t clear. The stealth fighters carry few bombs, still don’t have the computer code to use their guns … and have trouble taking off and landing.
The practice session is Green Flag West 15–08. The exercise links ground troops fighting mock battles at Fort Irwin in California with Air Force planes situated at nearby Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Green Flag West 15–08 kicked off on May 29 and this particular exercise is the eighth of 10 such events scheduled this year, according to the Nellis website.
“You can’t really overstate the importance of joint training exercises like Green Flag for both services,” historian Brain Laslie, author of The Air Force Way of War, told War Is Boring in an email. “They’re conducted in as realistic a manner as possible … and they provide the services an excellent opportunity to work together.”
F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers and the slower flying A-10 strike aircraft — all planes the flying branch intends to replace with the F-35 — regularly show up for Green Flag West.
Predator and Reaper drones, lumbering B-52 bombers, E-3 and E-8 radar planes, EC-130 jammers and KC-135 tankers are also common participants, according to an official factsheet.
Take all those planes — then add the F-35. But at the least, the troubled jet’s involvement in the training missions seems to be a public relations stunt.
In January, the Pentagon’s top weapon tester released a scathing report about the Joint Strike Fighter’s progress. The review contained a laundry list of serious issues, including stubborn problems with the millions of lines of computer code in the jet’s flight computers, malfunctioning $400,000 helmets, maintenance issues and more.
“The gains for F-35 pilots will be minimal until they can practice exploiting its full capabilities,” Tony Carr, a retired Air Force officer and outspoken critic of the branch, told War Is Boring. “It’s fair to question whether this is an attempt to portray the F-35 sprinting before it has learned to crawl.”
The F-35’s current software packages make it so that pilots cannot effectively aim the plane’s 25-millimeter cannon.
Despite the plans to put the jets into active service in August 2016, the Air Force doesn’t expect to have those upgrades ready for four more years. It recently admitted that the problematic aircraft would have to wait seven years before it’s ready for close air support missions.
That’s how long engineers figure it will take to write the code for pilots to lob Raytheon’s Small Diameter Bomb IIs. Currently in development itself, the Air Force wants this small precision weapon to be a central part of the Joint Strike Fighter’s arsenal.
Even with all these barely functioning or missing features, the aircraft are still “operationally representative,” Gen. Herbert Carlisle, chief of Air Combat Command, told Reuters after a gathering at the Air Force Association.
This idea is “trying to have it both ways in a sense, because we don’t fight wars with ‘operationally representative’ weapons,” Carr said. “It’s therefore arguable whether we should train with them.”
The pilots now flying out of Nellis for Green Flag West will not be able to use their guns on the ranges. At the moment, the jets can only carry two GPS-guided bombs inside their tiny bomb bays.
The Joint Strike Fighters will also be able to carry extra ordnance on the wings … eventually. But the planes would have to trade some of their much-touted stealthiness to do so.
Of course, the Air Force may be able to fake the effects of cannon fire and other weapons dropped by the F-35s during this particular exercise. The flying branch often uses simulated systems to save money, keep risks to a minimum and save real weapons for actual combat.
“In every exercise, there are simulations,” Laslie said of Green Flag West and similar events in general. “Since 1975, the Air Force have been remarkably good at creating very realistic threat environments.”
Still, “getting the balance between simulation and realism right is crucial,” Carr noted. “Too much artificiality can keep players from immersing in a scenario, which is where the combat-relevant learning happens.”
But the flying branch would have to recreate more than just enemies and munitions. With so many things still in the works, personnel on the ground might have to walk the F-35 pilots through their maneuvers.
During night time test flights from an amphibious assault ship in May 2015, Marine fliers experienced a similar set of problems. According to an official Lockheed press release, personnel aboard the USS Wasp had to direct the pilots as they lifted off and touched back down.
This arrangement was necessary because the Distributed Aperture System — a complex set of cameras that allows the pilot to see in any direction on their helmet’s visor — doesn’t work yet. The headset also prevents pilots from wearing traditional night-vision goggles.
“This is about shoring up the F-35’s image,” Carr said. “Since exercises are generally the domain of fielded weapon systems, this is about advancing the perception that the F-35 is essentially ready to join the fleet.”
After a seemingly never-ending series of delays, cost overruns and other problems, the flying branch is desperate to prove that its top project is on track. The service insists the Joint Strike Fighters will be combat-ready on schedule.
“It’s incredibly important that you’ve got to get past just the theoretical,” Carlisle explained. Until now, the F-35s hasn’t flown in any large drills.
Leading the effort and hoping to buy more than 1,500 of the stealthy jets itself, the Air Force has felt pressure to show the project is still meeting its goals.
The massive Joint Strike Fighter program — a $1.4 trillion debacle involving the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — has strained relations between the Pentagon, Congress and the American public.
The flying branch also wants legislators cut funding for other aircraft—most notably the venerable A-10s—to find more money for the F-35.
“The F-35 has become such an intractably politicized issue for the Air Force that it’s fair to assume anything is motivated at least partially by propaganda, at least until we can conclude otherwise,” Carr added.
We’ll probably just have to wait and see if sending the barely functional F-35s to the desert has any practical benefits — for the Air Force’s pilots or its P.R. campaign.