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USAF F-35As commence debut combat deployment

Photo: F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron arrive at Al Dhafra on April 15. USAF/SSgt Chris Thornbury


The US Air Force has commenced the first combat deployment for its F-35A Lightning IIs. Six F-35As departed Hill AFB, Utah, transitted through Morón Air Base, Spain, and arrived at Al Dhafra, in the United Arab Emirates, on April 15. A further four aircraft arrived at Morón on April 15, also heading eastwards. The deployment is being led by the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS), which is attached to the 388th Fighter Wing (and Air Force Reserve Command 419th FW) at Hill. It also includes personnel from the Reserve 466th Fighter Squadron.

The F-35s are deploying in support of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW), and they were greeted by its commander Brig Gen Adrian Spain. The F-35s are joining Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’, and likely to be assisting combat operations to tackle the remaining pockets of fighters loyal to so-called Islamic State (IS).

‘We are adding a cutting edge weapons system to our arsenal that significantly enhances the capability of the coalition,’ said Lt Gen Joseph Guastella, commander of Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT). ‘We look forward to demonstrating the full range of the F-35A’s capabilities while it increases the interoperability of our forces throughout the region,’ Guastella said.

An F-35A taxis prior to departing from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The aircraft arrived at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates on April 15 to support the Air Force Central Command mission. USAF/R. Nial Bradshaw

Steps to deployment
The F-35A was declared ‘combat ready’ by the USAF on August 2, 2016, when Gen ‘Hawk’ Carlisle, the then head of Air Combat Command, declared that the Lightning II had achieved initial operational capability (IOC) with the 388th Fighter Wing’s 34th Fighter Squadron (FS) at Hill. Carlisle said: ‘The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory, because it can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield.’

The 34th and 466th FS at Hill AFB, Utah, completed all requirements to achieve IOC following the submission of documentation for consideration on July 27, 2016, right at the front end of the window that had been set for August–December. The 34th had 12 F-35As equipped with the modifications necessary for it to achieve IOC, with 21 combat-ready, active-duty and reserve pilots assigned to the squadrons.

The 4th FS was established as the second combat-coded USAF F-35 unit, receiving its first Lightning IIs in September 2017. The unit had been engaged in extensive work-ups in late 2018 and was widely expected to make a combat deployment. In November 2018, 4th Fighter Squadron commander Lt Col Yousef Morris said: ‘The tempo gives our airmen a taste of deployed operations. We want the first time they see these things to be in a training environment, and not when we’re called upon to deploy during a contingency.’

Having announced the first combat deployment, a USAF news release said that 388th FW commander, Col Lee Kloos, told airmen: ‘For those of us who have been a part of the F-35 program for a while, this is a huge milestone.’ Lt Col Morris, 4th FS commander added: ‘As the first operational F-35 wing in the air force we’ve been working toward this since we received our first jets in 2015. Our Airmen are ready for this mission.’

A full news report on this deployment will appear in the forthcoming June issue of Combat Aircraft. Ensure you never miss an issue, click here to see our subscription options. Get the print issue hot off the press and direct to your door or our digital issue direct to your mobile device:

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