Red flag 2021

Five F-35A Lightning II fighter jets assigned to the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base sit on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on Feb. 8, 2021.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Despite an ongoing F-35 engine shortage, the fighter wing at Hill Air Force Base that flies the jet is having no issues staying battle-ready.

Micah Garbarino, spokesperson with Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing, said a group of airmen from the wing recently returned from a nearly three week-long combat exercise in Nevada’s southern desert. Garbarino said about 200 airmen from the 388th — and its reserve counterpart, 419th Fighter Wing — took 12 F-35s to Nellis Air Force Base during the latter days of January and returned to Hill late last week.

The combat exercise, which Garbarino described as “large-scale” and “highly complex,” is know as “Red Flag.” The training involves the Department of Defense and a handful of U.S. allies and takes place on the Nevada Test and Training Range. It includes attack, fighter and bomber aircraft that perform missions like air attacks on enemy targets, combat search and rescue, close air support and others.

At its core, the exercise is meant to provide a realistic simulation of an F-35 battle against near-equal enemies during a large-scale conflict. Instituted shortly after the Vietnam War, Red Flag was created to give young pilots at least 10 combat-realistic training missions.

Garbarino said the exercise has changed in recent years and in 2021, it featured several different DoD aircraft aside from Hill’s F-35s, including B-2 Spirits, B-1B Lancers, F-22 Raptors, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-15E Eagles, EA-18G Growlers, E-3 Sentries and E-8 Joint Stars.

Those planes made up a friendly “Blue Force,” Garbarino said, that took on “aggressors” provided by Nellis which made up an enemy “Red Force.”

“When you factor in the complexity of the missions, and the sheer number of aircraft, there aren’t many training opportunities for an entire squadron that can match Red Flag,” Col. Steven Behmer, 388th FW commander, said in a statement. “It’s a great time to further develop tactics across platforms, as well as gain experience within the unit.”

Garbarino said in 2017, Hill pilots were the first to take the F-35 to a Red Flag exercise. In the four years since then, he said training scenarios have shifted from counterinsurgency operations, to “more intense missions against scores of high-end or ‘near peer’ aircraft, surface threats, electronic warfare, space and cyber threats.”

Lt. Col. Aaron Cavazos, Hill’s 34th Fighter Squadron commander, said during the exercise there were 50 to 60 friendly aircraft fighting against a nearly equal number of similarly armed “enemies.”

During the training, Cavazos’ squadron tested the F-35’s cutting-edge sensors and stealth capabilities to perform offensive battle tactics and escort duties.

“It’s impossible to replicate at home station,” Cavazos said of the training.

The simulated enemy forces at Red Flag 2021 were better equipped and more formidable than in past years, which meant some failure was inevitable. While Cavazos said failure is never the goal, it does offer a chance to discover unexpected problems and unrealistic expectations in mission planning and execution.

“This training is absolutely crucial for the squadron,” he said. “We’re facing an enemy where it’s likely that we’ll lose if we don’t go into every mission with a solid, joint game plan.”

Aside from the pilots, Garbarino said maintainers from Hill’s 34th Fighter Generation Squadron and 466th Aircraft Maintenance Unit also participated in the exercise. He said during the training, the group didn’t lose a single F-35 combat sortie to a maintenance issue.

The training took place as the DoD revealed a program-wide F-35 engine shortage.

Last week Hill announced that its F-35 aerial demonstration team had been forced to revise its 2021 show schedule due to the shortage. Engines on Air Force model F-35s have been reaching limits of their design, with overheating causing premature cracks and have been removed from service earlier than anticipated.

In a statement, the 388th Fighter Wing told the Standard-Examiner that the shortage issue is being addressed and thus far, has not impacted any of the wing’s operational combat requirements.

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