Hill F-35 refueling

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron departs after conducting an aerial refueling with a KC-135 Stratotanker above the Arabian Gulf on Dec. 3, 2019.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — After three Middle East combat deployments in less than two years, airmen from Hill Air Force Base are at the leading edge of discovery when it comes to the military’s newest fighter aircraft and war.

According to base spokesperson Micah Garbarino, airmen from Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing have been continuously deployed in combat with the F-35A Lightning II for more than 16 months.

Each of the wing’s three squadrons, Garbarino said, alongside reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, have deployed in support of the Air Force Central Command’s mission at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates.

The 4th Fighter Squadron, which deployed in April 2019, was the first. The 34th FS deployed in October 2019 and returned home in June and July, and the 421st FS is currently deployed — made up of pilots and maintainers and some personnel in other support functions. The group is performing close air support missions and supplying air and maritime escorts for other U.S. military groups.

The 4th FS’s mission, which ended in November 2019, marked the first time the Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II jets performed a real-world combat operation, and the group completed at least two combat strikes on enemy forces.

In September 2019, F-35s and pilots from Hill were part of a group that dropped about 80,000 pounds of bombs on Qanus Island in Iraq — a spot that has been used as a hideout by the Islamic State. In April 2019, Hill F-35 pilots conducted an air strike at Wadi Ashai, Iraq, hitting a long-established ISIS tunnel network and weapons cache in a remote area of the Hamrin Mountains.

At the time, Air Force officials said the strike marked the jet’s first real-world combat strike.

The 34th FS was later tasked with the first short-notice F-35 deployment, and the largest F-35 combat deployment to date.

“I was flying a local exercise sortie at Hill at the time,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Cavazos, 34th Fighter Squadron commander. “I got recalled by the command post while I was airborne to return to base. That normally means somebody got hurt or we’re being deployed. It ended up being that we were heading out ... on a short-notice tasking. A couple weeks later, we had people flying combat sorties.”

On a given day, pilots would perform strafing runs on close air support missions and complete maritime escorts for Navy carrier strike groups.

Cavazos said the deployment showed to him that the F-35 can carry out a variety of missions. Capt. Susan McLeod, officer in charge of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, which takes care of the jets from the ground, said the F-35 is proving to be adaptable and less needy in terms of maintenance than Air Force officials originally predicted.

Garbarino said the 34th FS’s deployment was the first time an F-35 unit successfully carried out an “agile basing at a forward location,” which essentially means personnel and aircraft can leave their main deployment location and head any place in the world to complete essential missions that are vital to the defense of U.S. assets and people.

For more than three months, a third of the squadron deployed out of Dhafra and flew missions from an undisclosed location.

“We now have unpredictability against potential adversaries,” Cavazos said. “They are so used to us showing up in country, staying in the same place for half a year, doing the same things and leaving. They know it. We know it. Now we proved we can be more agile. That principle can carry over operationally to other regions and any potential adversaries there.”

Earlier this month, a large contingent of fighter jets and airmen from Hill completed combat training in Alaska and shared insight with airmen and maintainers at Eielson Air Force Base, which will be the Air Force’s second operational F-35 combat wing.

When the F-35 first arrived at Hill, in September 2015, the wing was made up of pilots who came from a variety of flying backgrounds. Today, the group’s background is mainly tied to the F-35 only.

“We’re becoming our own F-35 community. We aren’t just a hodge podge from other airframes anymore,” Cavazos said. “It’s really cool to have that experience with the younger guys in the squadron and see them progress.”

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