While controversy trails the F-35A Lightning II fighter whenever it flies these days, only contrails were visible Thursday as the cutting-edge stealth jet made one of its first appearances in the ongoing Red Flag air combat exercise at Nellis Air Force Base.
Since the year’s first Red Flag began Jan. 23, the F-35A — the Air Force version of the $100 million joint strike fighter — has been flying for the first time in tandem with the nation’s other stealth air-superiority jet, the F-22 Raptor, and more than 80 other warplanes and support aircraft from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
So far, the Lightning II has racked up 110 missions in the exercise that ends Feb. 10 over the sprawling Nevada Test and Training Range, north of the Las Vegas Valley.
The F-35 has been in the limelight since December, when then-President-elect Donald Trump criticized the cost of the Lockheed Martin aircraft as “out of control” in a series of tweets and said he had asked rival Boeing to “price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet” that could perform the same mission. Eight F-18 Hornets also were participating in Red Flag.
Before his squadron departed for Thursday’s war exercise, Lt. Col. George “Banzai” Watkins, commander of the F-35As from the 34th Fighter Squadron, declined to compare “apples and oranges” of the radar-evading joint strike fighters with the Navy’s non-stealthy F-18 Super Hornet.
But Watkins said the F-35 “has been living up to what it’s expected to do,” in the exercise.
Red Flag planners made sure that the 13 F-35s from Hill Air Force Base in Utah have had more aggressor jets than ever to counter and avoid simulated advanced missile strikes.
Meanwhile the F-35s on the friendly “blue team” have been successful in finding ground-based air defense sites with their high-tech sensors and taking them out with training bombs.
As of Thursday the F-35’s kill ratio with aggressor jets stood at 15-1, even though the F-35’s primary mission isn’t air-to-air combat, which typically is left up to the Raptor.
Watkins said he’s “never seen a Red Flag like this where they’ve put up as many advanced threats against us. If we didn’t suffer a few losses, it wouldn’t be challenging enough.”
Members of Congress who hold the Pentagon’s purse strings have been paying close attention to the debate over the cost of the F-35. The unit price of roughly $100 million apiece is expected to decrease to the $90 million range as more of the estimated 150 joint strike fighters are produced for the Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Navy and allies.
Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, a new member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she has an open mind on the president’s approach to reviewing the nation’s most expensive weapons system.
“The president and secretary of defense’s focus on tackling the cost of the F-35 is absolutely right,” she said in an email via her spokesman. “Costs are coming down, but I believe there are additional avenues available to continue to reduce what we’re paying for these aircraft.”
Watkins said the F-35A’s debut has demonstrated that the nation’s newest stealth jet provides an essential complement to the F-22s.
“They’re designed for air-to-air. We’re designed for the suppression of enemy air defense positions,” he said. “We can see the ground through the weather with our SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) mapping radar to detect a threat and take it out before it’s a factor to the other aircraft out there.”
The Marine version — the F-35B — was the first joint strike fighter to fly in a Red Flag at Nellis, in July last year.
Contact Keith Rogers at [email protected] or 702-383-0308. Follow @KeithRogers2 on Twitter.