USAF Sends F-35s for First Combat Ops; RAF Set To Follow

 - April 17, 2019, 3:05 AM
Three F-35As from the 4th Fighter Squadron taxi in at Al Dhafra in the UAE on April 15 following their ferry flights from Morón in Spain. The aircraft have deployed from Hill AFB, Utah, to join Operation Inherent Resolve. (photo: U.S. Air Force)

U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35As have deployed to the Central Command region to undertake the service’s first operational deployment of the type. Six F-35As of the 4th Fighter Squadron arrived at Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates on April 15 to join the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.

“We are adding a cutting-edge weapons system to our arsenal that significantly enhances the capability of the coalition,” said Lieutenant General Joseph T. Guastella, U.S. Air Force Central Command commander. “The sensor fusion and survivability this aircraft provides to the joint force will enhance security and stability across the theater and deter aggressors.”

The first batch of aircraft arrived via Morón in Spain and was followed later by a second group of four. The 4th FS is based at Hill AFB, Utah, as part of the 388th Fighter Wing. The Al Dhafra detachment is crewed by personnel from both the 4th and the Air Force Reserve Command’s 466th FS (419th FW), which shares aircraft with the active-duty squadron as part of the Total Force concept. The 388th and 419th FWs are currently the only combat-ready F-35 units in the U.S. Air Force, the 388th's 34th FS having achieved IOC (initial operating capability) in August 2016. The 4th FS was the wing's second combat-coded squadron.

The Lightning II made its combat debut in May 2018, when Israeli F-35A Adir aircraft attacked targets in Syria. In late September, U.S. aircraft were used in action for the first time when Marine Corps F-35Bs attacked Taliban targets in Afghanistan while flying from the USS Essex.

Meanwhile, on April 9 the UK’s defense minister, Gavin Williamson, announced that the UK would send F-35Bs on the type’s first deployment to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus “later this year.” The base is home to the 903 Expeditionary Air Wing and is the focal point for RAF operations over Syria. The RAF’s No. 617 Squadron—based at Marham and jointly staffed by RAF and Royal Navy personnel—declared a land-based IOC for the F-35B on January 10. The UK now has 17 of a planned 138 F-35Bs.

The deployment will not only provide the UK with the potential to evaluate the F-35B under operational conditions, but will also test the ability to deploy and sustain the aircraft to a new location. Williamson noted, “This deployment marks an important milestone in this game-changing aircraft’s journey to becoming fully operational.”

In other F-35 news, a number of European nations are increasing their interest in acquiring F-35s. In early April the Pentagon’s F-35 program head, Vice Admiral Mathias Winter, told Congress, “Potential Foreign Military Sales customers include Singapore, Greece, Romania, Spain, and Poland.”

Lockheed Martin confirmed at the Avalon Airshow in Australia that the company is in discussions with Spain. The nation would appear to have a requirement to replace its aging carrier-borne AV-8B Harriers with the F-35B model, while the air force could receive F-35As. Poland is another potential customer, having announced in February a plan to acquire 64 new fighters for delivery in 2022-2030. Finland and Switzerland are evaluating the type as part of their new fighter programs.

In early April, Greek defense minister Evangelos Apostolakis announced that the country is seeking a new fighter beyond the current program to upgrade 84 of its F-16C/D Block 52+ aircraft to the F-16V standard with APG-83 AESA radar. Greek media has already reported that pricing and availability information has been requested for up to 30 F-35As.