Images released today by US Central Command (CENTCOM) have confirmed the first combat missions for US Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs.
A total of 10 F-35As from the 388th Fighter Wing’s 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS) ‘Fightin’ Fuujins’ and its Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) associate unit the 466th EFS ‘Diamondbacks’ began arriving at Al Dhafra, United Arab Emirates, on the evening of April 15 for the USAF F-35A’s debut combat deployment.
The F-35s are now operating in support of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) and are joining Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’, and likely to be replacing or working alongside the F-15C Eagles of the 493rd EFS ‘Grim Reapers’ that are also in theater.
The F-35s launched initial local shakedown missions on April 24 carrying external missile rails but with no weapons attached. This was apparently followed by the first official combat missions on April 26 — complete with live external AIM-9X Sidewinders. It was the first time the USAF F-35As were on the daily Air Tasking Order and a dedicated VUL (Vulnerability Period).
According to a CENTCOM photo release, this was followed on April 30 by a further mission. The captions for the images depicting a tanker mission, said: ‘The KC-10 and its crew were tasked to support aerial refueling operations for the F-35A’s first air interdiction during its inaugural deployment to the US Air Forces Central Command’s area of responsibility.’
A further news release added details: ‘Two US Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft conducted an air strike at Wadi Ashai, Iraq, in support of Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve on April 30. This strike marked the F-35A’s first combat employment.’
It appears the two F-35As used GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) to hit a tunnel network used by so-called Islamic State (IS) and weapons cache in the Hamrin Mountains near Baiji in Iraq.
The images depict a mission very similar to that experienced by Combat Aircraft editor Jamie Hunter last year. On that occasion the magazine flew on a KC-10 out of Al Dhafra supporting F-22 Raptors. The long flight saw the tanker supporting a pair of the fighters as they pressed north into the Area Of Responsibility (AOR) — namely Iraq and then Syria — on call and ready to respond to a variety of situations from combat air patrol (providing air cover for ground forces), to direct strikes in support of ground troops.
Interestingly, the F-35s are still carrying their radar reflecting Luneberg lenses, which means they won’t be completely stealthy on these missions. This may be a measure to stop any attempts by other forces in the region to interrogate the F-35’s low observable radar signature.
A first report on the USAF F-35A combat deployment appears in the forthcoming June issue of Combat Aircraft, which is on sale this Thursday.
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