HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Hill Air Force Base’s 388th and 419th fighter wings make up the Air Force’s first, and for now, only combat capable F-35 unit.
Since F-35 operations started ramping up at Hill in 2015, fighter squadrons within the wing have completed multiple European, Pacific and Middle East combat deployments. By now, six years into the program, it’s safe to call most of the Hill airmen associated with the military’s preeminent, next-generation fighter jet “seasoned vets.”
But top officials with the group charged with maintaining the most expensive piece of U.S. military weaponry say it’s not time to stop improving.
Micah Garbarino, spokesperson with the wing, said the 388th Maintenance Group is currently involved with a new class of intensive training programs that will ultimately result in greater “combat flexibility” with the F-35. The 388th MG is the group of airmen charged with keeping the jets in working condition and ready to hit the sky at a moment’s notice.
The overarching training concept happening on base now, dubbed “Agile Combat Employment,” revolves around a single-minded purpose: getting Hill flying units to forward deploy and operate from austere airfields, or land, re-arm and refuel in unpredictable locations. A forward deployment essentially involves deploying to one, typically larger location, then taking off again from there to a smaller and possibly tougher to navigate spot. Forward deploying allows fighter squadrons to maintain a degree of unpredictability in battle.
“ACE requires us to look at ways to be lean and agile, and training our maintainers to be multi-capable increases our ability to support operations with a smaller footprint,” Col. Jeremy Anderson, 388th MG commander said in a statement.
A training under the initiative called “Lightning Technician Program,” focuses on creating a small group of highly-skilled maintainers that work to quickly ready a relatively small combat package of six F-35s. For some context, Hill’s fighter wing launched 52 F-35s in about 10 minutes in an exercise on base in January of 2020.
Garbarino said the LTP process is being integrated with another training known as “Core 54” that refines work in the LTP and involves perfecting a core group of tasks on the ground, combining all the elements needed to launch and recover aircraft. The tasks include inspections, refueling, servicing oil, hydraulics and more.
“Core 54 is like your bachelor’s degree and LTP is your follow-on master’s degree,” Anderson said.
Hill officials say being able to maintain the F-35 effectively under a variety of conditions is growing more and more important. Since 2019, Hill’s F-35 team has been integral in ongoing U.S. combat operations around the Middle East, with each of the base’s three F-35 squadrons deploying in support of the Air Force Central Command’s mission at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. The groups have mostly utilized the jet on close air support missions, offensive and defensive counter-air attacks, and for joint exercises with U.S. allies around the region.
In 2020, Hill’s maintenance groups generated over 9,000 flights accounting 20,000 flight hours. The hours included both combat and regular training missions. During the combat deployments, the outfit supported Hill F-35s that dropped 16,000 pounds of munitions and eliminated five high-value targets in support of the Central Command operation in the Middle East.
The first two operational F-35s arrived at Hill in September 2015 and the base received approximately one to two jets every month until reaching its full fleet of 78 late last year. The wing’s three squadrons each have 24 F-35s, with another six backup aircraft stored at the base. Since the arrival of the first jets, Hill’s two fighter wings have flown tens of thousands of sorties, built millions of dollars of new facilities and taken the jet into real-world combat situations multiple times. Hill F-35 units also have deployed to Royal Air Force Lakenheath in April 2017, as well as Kadena Air Base, Japan, in fall 2017.
But despite the depth of experience now seen inside Hill’s fighter wings, Anderson said operations will continue to evolve.
“The (new training) is improving the technical skillset of our maintainers and will make us more capable, leaner and faster in peacetime operations as well as combat,” he said.