The F-35 has hit yet another snag: During a recent exercise at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, Air Force F-35A pilots set out to practice evading surface-to-air missiles, but they could not, because the SAM radars on the ground could not even find the ultra-stealthy planes.
“If they never saw us, they couldn’t target us,” said Lt. Col. George Watkins, the commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, told the Air Force Times.
To participate in the exercise as planned, the F-35As had to turn on their transponders, essentially announcing their presence so the SAM sites could see and engage them.
“We basically told them where we were at and said, ‘Hey, try to shoot at us,’ ” said Watkins. Had Watkins and crew not turned on their transponders, “most likely we would not have suffered a single loss from any SAM threats while we were training at Mountain Home.”
Air Force planners have been counting on the F-35’s ability to enter heavily contested airspace unseen by enemy radar and missiles, and the result of this exercise seems to vindicate that strategy to say the least.
“When we go to train, it’s really an unfair fight for the guys who are simulating the adversaries,” Watkins continued. “We’ve been amazed by what we can do when we go up against fourth-gen adversaries in our training environment, in the air and on the ground.”
The idea that F-35s can enter the most heavily defended air spaces on earth, pass by undetected by SAM missile sites and radars, and soften up those targets as well as legacy fighters represents the entire reasoning behind the trillion-dollar thrust to get this weapons system in the air.
Watkins said that with just four F-35s, he can “be everywhere and nowhere at the same time because we can cover so much ground with our sensors, so much ground and so much airspace. And the F-15s or F-16s, or whoever is simulating an adversary or red air threat, they have no idea where we’re at and they can’t see us and they can’t target us.”
Watkins described a “pretty awesome feeling,” seeing the grand plans of the F-35 come to fruition in a realistic training exercise, by rendering virtually all other platforms obsolete.
Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, where Watkins commands the squadron of F-35s, now has 21 certified pilots, 222 maintainers, and 15 F-35s at the ready. Another F-35 is scheduled to be delivered at the end of August, and more pilots and maintainers are continually being trained up to full readiness.
According to the Air Force Times, no further shortfalls in supply are expected, and top Air Force brass should declare the plane operationally ready within a few days.
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