The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the first time provided close-air support to ground troops in the Air Force’s Green Flag training exercise – the service’s large-scale air-to-ground mock combat operation in the southwestern U.S., Air Force officials said.
The training was one of the first times the F-35 has participated in close-air support missions, flying alongside F-16s, Army helicopters, Predator drones and the much-discussed A-10s, said Air Force Lt. Col. Cameron Dadgar, Commander, 549th Combat Training Squadron.
“This was the first time the F-35s were the main airframe. The schedule and the scenarios were built around the fact that there was going to be an F-35,” Dadgar said.
The combat scenarios ranged from close-quarters air support to air-to-air engagements against near-peer adversaries. The exercise involved about 5,000 Army ground troops from Fort Irwin, Calif., and aircraft from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., over vast areas over the western U.S. and Pacific Ocean, Dadgar told Military.com.
He explained the F-35 accomplished the close-air-support mission and integrated well with ground-based Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTACs.
“It did the mission effectively. It was significant that nothing special had to be done because it was an F-35,” he said. “The procedures and techniques that are already established are similar regardless of airframe.”
Ground-based JTACs and airborne F-35 pilots use voice and digital technology to identify and confirm targets, sharing information such as coordinates on a targeting form known as the “nine-line.”
For instance, a JTAC will work with pilots to help interpret the rules of engagement and seek to identify nearby civilians or minimize collateral damage.
“They know if they drop a certain weapon they will know how large the frag pattern is going to be,” Dadgar said.
During the exercise, the F-35 flew established air support for specific ground maneuvers and also responded to fast-changing ground-battle conditions while in the air.
When asked if the stealthy F-35 was survivable in a close-in fight supporting ground troops, Dadgar said the F-35 was more maneuverable at slow speeds than other jets currently performing the close-air support mission, such as the A-10.
These comments bring added significance in light of the ongoing debates about the Air Force plan to phase out and retire the A-10; Air Force officials have said that the F-35 will be among the aircraft able to perform the close-air-support mission once the A-10 is gone, however vocal proponents of the A-10 continue to question this assessment and argue for preservation of the aircraft.
Air Force and Pentagon officials have also been defending the F-35 from recent news reports citing an F-35 test pilot who claimed the new stealth aircraft could not dogfight successfully against its older counterpart, the F-16.
The F-35 seemed to fit seamlessly into established close-air support tactics and procedures, Dadgar explained. The improvements in coordination for close-air-support toward the end of the 14-day training exercise had more to do with human factors, he said.
“The F-35 accomplished the mission. The mistakes and strengths have a lot more to do with pilots and JTACs and training than they have to do with the hardware,” he added.
The mock-combat scenarios played out during Green Flag included urban, mountainous and maritime conditions, Dadgar said.
“The scenarios ranged from personnel recovery to close-air support and defensive counter-air in a contested environment where you had troops in close contact. The adversary has airborne aircraft as well along with surface-to-air missiles,” he explained.
— Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com