Nellis ‘Panther’ tamers

Photo: An F-35A of the 6th Weapons Squadron. Jamie Hunter


While politics and popular media divide opinion on the F-35, the US Air Force is quietly and confidently getting on with the job of developing its lethality. At the center of this effort is the Weapons School at Nellis AFB, as it trains elite ‘Panther’ instructors, writes Combat Aircraft editor Jamie Hunter.

While Lightning II is the official name for the F-35, at Nellis ‘Panther’ is very much the nickname given to the USAF’s newest fighter, much the same as ‘Rhino’ was adopted for the F-4 and ‘Viper’ for the F-16.

USAF Chief of Staff Gen David Goldfein has championed the resurgence of the USAF. Amid a pilot retention crisis and in many cases geriatric aircraft fleets, Goldfein has made it clear that the USAF needs to grow and improve its overall health. This has been resoundingly endorsed by President Donald Trump’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which recognized the specific progress of China and Russia — the perceived threats that they bring — and how the US military has conceded ground in the technology battle.

The badge of the 6th Weapons Squadron. Photo Jamie Hunter

This new focus on being ready for high-end conflict has totally endorsed a constant that has endured throughout the years of change. The USAF Weapons School has always been about ensuring the best of the best are still leading from the front. Since 1954, the school has always been about keeping the USAF at the top end of its training, getting the very most from the very best equipment.

‘In the National Defense Strategy of 2018 from Secretary Mattis, the USAF had a large role to play,’ explains Brig Gen Rob Novotny, the current commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis. Novotny calls the NDS ‘one of the best documents we’ve seen from a defense perspective in a long time’, adding that over the past 18-19 years the counter-insurgency fight has driven a lot of acquisition and training programs. ‘At Nellis — [particularly] the Weapons School and ‘Red Flag’ [exercises] — we’ve always tried to keep our sights a little higher in terms of the level of conflict. The Weapons School has always focused on that high-end fight.’

The latest fighter aircraft WPS was established for F-35A and Lt Col Michael ‘Double’ Blauser became the first commander of the 6th WPS ‘Skulls’ when it stood up on June 20, 2017. The F-35 Weapons Instructor Course (WIC) takes what Blauser calls a ‘holistic look at the mission sets of the F-35’ and definitely focuses on the high-end conflict side of things: ‘trying to think forward to the next fight,’ he adds.

Lt Col Michael Blauser. Photo Jamie Hunter

Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) is a high-end mission that Blauser says is a ‘main focus area’ of the ‘Panther’ syllabus. ‘SEAD is about providing an effect,’ he says. Refining SEAD tactics, he says, was a ‘challenge of the first couple of classes’, adding: ‘the F-16 has very defined tactics, and we are still very much developing ours and writing the book on that.’

Read the full feature including an in-depth interview with Lt Col Blauser and a fascinating insight into maintining the F-35 in the new August issue of Combat Aircraft, on sale today. Subscribe by clicking here, and get Combat Aircraft delivered direct to your door:

F-35As on the flight line at Nellis. Photo Jamie Hunter

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