As the US Air Force nears initial operational capability (IOC) with the F-35A between August and December 2016, in a press conference at the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 7, Gen Herbert ‘Hawk’ Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, told reporters he expected the milestone to occur at the ‘leading edge’ of that window.
‘It is doing spectacular’, said Carlisle of the F-35A. ‘Currently in the Air Force we are flying it at Eglin AFB, Florida, where we are doing training; at Luke AFB, Arizona we are spinning up rapidly with another training unit; we are flying test and evaluation out at Edwards AFB, California; we are doing test and evaluation and starting to spin up the initial curriculum at the Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nevada; and of course our initial operational capability is going to be at Hill AFB, where the 34th FS ‘Rams’ are spinning up right now and currently have 12 to 14 jets at this point, and moving into what we hope is an IOC fairly quickly.’
The exact number of jets at Hill has been subject to some fluctuation as the last few examples underwent modifications required to support IOC. A further batch of aircraft will begin the modification process beginning in August. Depending on the actual IOC date, modifications may be complete on the additional F-35s by the time this is sanctioned. In the meantime, however, 12 aircraft have been modified (a month ahead of schedule) and this total will be sufficient to achieve IOC.
‘One of the things that I don’t think people realize is it’s still in the SDD [System Development and Demonstration] phase’, Carlisle continued. ‘It is ahead of where the F-22 was at the same point.’
Gen Carlisle identified only two areas in which the F-35A’s path to IOC has been somewhat held up. First, the ALIS ‘is not quite to where we want it to be, but there’s workarounds. We want to get more effective and efficient with ALIS, but it’s actually very deployable’. Second is the issue of aircrew qualification. ‘In July they are doing their verification, where the young pilots get up and they have a murder board of senior leaders and they have to talk about how they would plan their missions.’
While the F-35’s dogfighting prowess has attracted criticism from some quarters, Carlisle confirmed that the F-35A had not suffered any losses to the F-15Es and F-16s in the ‘fairly robust’ simulated air combats conducted at Mountain Home recently.
Post-IOC, Carlisle expects to see a Theater Security Package (TSP) of F-35As deploy to Europe or the Pacific in Fiscal Year 2017 as the USAF works toward operational deployment of the F-35. After the F-35A’s capability has been proven in a TSP and in a ‘Flag’ LFE, the ‘Rams’ will likely be deployed ‘downrange’ to the Middle East for combat operations. Indeed, once the IOC criteria are fulfilled, Carlisle confirmed he would deploy the F-35A ‘in a heartbeat’ to wherever a combatant commander might require it. ‘I don’t think it will be in the near term. I think it will be 2017-18’. While that is the deliberate plan, Carlisle reiterated that all this could change should the F-35A’s particular capabilities be required in theater before then.
Alongside the effort toward IOC, the Air Force’s F-35A program is of course busy with other activities relating to fielding the Lightning II. Col David Chace, F-35 systems management office chief and lead for F-35 operational requirements at ACC, identifies other priorities as ‘system upgrades, such as Block 3F for full warfighter capability, and future basing locations.
A full report on the F-35A IOC from Thomas Newdick appears in our forthcoming September issue.