HILL AIR FORCE BASE — After a year that saw two of Hill Air Force Base’s three F-35 fighter squadrons serve overseas combat deployments, airmen there are back to the grind in 2021 — but this time the deployment is a little closer to home.
Micah Garbarino, 388th Fighter Wing spokesman, said about 200 airmen with Hill’s 34th Fighter Squadron have deployed to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The group, which is made up of active-duty personnel from the 388th and reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, will be stationed at Nellis until mid-February as they participate in a long-held combat exercise in the southern Nevada desert known as “Red Flag.”
The exercise involves the Department of Defense and a handful of U.S. allies and takes place on the Nevada Test and Training Range. The realistic combat training includes attack, fighter and bomber aircraft that perform missions like air attacks on enemy targets, combat search and rescue, close air support and others.
In short, the exercise is meant to replicate a battle against near-equal enemies during a large-scale conflict.
Developed after the Vietnam War, Garbarino said Red Flag was created to give young pilots at least 10 combat-realistic, large-scale training missions.
“(Since it was developed) planners have shaped the experience into an all-inclusive modern battle space, adding space, cyber and intelligence assets,” Garbarino said. “All aimed at making life as tough as possible for the attending units. “
Base officials say the exercise is essentially a baptism by fire for younger airmen, and the experience gained there can’t be found anywhere else, short of real life combat.
“Working together at Red Flag, in a high-tempo integrated fight, all focused on that day’s mission, is a confidence builder for our young pilots and maintainers,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander, in a statement. “It’s also a good opportunity to build strong working relationships across weapons systems and cohesiveness as a wing.”
Airmen from the wing spent the second half of 2019 and virtually all of 2020 overseas.
Each of Hill’s three F-35 squadrons have deployed in support of the Air Force Central Command’s mission at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. The Hill service members employed the F-35 on close air support missions, performed offensive and defensive counter-air attacks, and participated in joint exercises with U.S. allies around the Middle East. The 4th Fighter Squadron, which deployed in April 2019 and returned in October of that year, was the first. The 34th FS deployed immediately following the 4th’s homecoming in October 2019 and returned home in June and July 2020. The 421st FS deployed to the region in June of last year, returning in October.
The base F-35 wing is the first (and for now the only) combat-ready F-35 outfit in the entire Air Force. 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.