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A little more than four years after receiving their first combat-coded F-35A Lightning II aircraft, Hill Air Force Base's fighter wings have achieved full warfighting capability.
The term describes a set of focus areas within the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings: fully trained pilots and maintainers, a full complement of 78 aircraft and the mission and support equipment needed to fly.
While the designation of full warfighting capability is an important milestone, the wing has been combat capable since the Air Force declared initial operational capability in August 2016. Since then, the wings have participated in several large combat exercises, deployed twice to Europe and once to the Pacific and supported two Middle East combat deployments, including one short-notice tasking.
“Every training opportunity, exercise and deployment we’ve completed over the past four years has been a key stepping stone in reaching full warfighting capability,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “This is just the beginning of sustained F-35A combat operations and we will remain focused on staying ready to deploy whenever, wherever we’re needed.”
The first F-35As arrived at Hill AFB in September 2015 and the final aircraft arrived in December 2019. In the intervening years, Airmen at Hill AFB have been training and developing tactics as the aircraft systems and capabilities have matured.
Reaching the right balance of qualified manning can be a challenge when activating a brand-new weapon system. The first squadron to stand up, the 34th Fighter Squadron, started with a core of pilots who had some level of F-35A training and experience in other platforms. As the wing began to grow, that experience level was diluted, and each squadron has been through a period where a majority of pilots could be considered “inexperienced wingmen.”
“We didn’t have a majority of pilots who had been training and carrying out F-35A tactics for 15 or 20 years. So, the core experience is less,” Behmer said. “We’ve worked hard and achieved the right balance in the squadrons.”
Through large exercises like Red Flag, local exercises, instructor pilot and flight-lead training, the squadrons have drastically increased that level of experience. Young pilots, some who have never flown any other aircraft, now have real-world combat experience.
When the first jets arrived at Hill AFB, about 50% of the maintainers were fully-trained, seasoned F-35 maintainers from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. That number decreased due to PCS, retirements and separations.
Since then, there has been an influx of new manning with less experience, and every other maintainer has been “homegrown.”
“We really relied on our more experienced personnel, and as we received more aircraft, spread them throughout the group to train and equip the next F-35A aircraft maintenance units the right way,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander. “When you have the right mix of leadership, with the right focus, they can empower their people and everyone develops maintenance capability quickly.”
All 78 aircraft delivered
When the first aircraft arrived in 2015, the goal was to fully equip each squadron with 24 primary assigned aircraft and six backups by the end of 2019. That was realized in December with the delivery of the 78th jet.
“It was really exciting to get the first jet in 2015 as we’d been talking about it and looking forward to it for a long time,” said Chief Master Sgt. Eric Engel, 466th Aircraft Maintenance Unit superintendent with the 419th FW. “When we started out, most of our folks were longtime F-16 maintainers and it’s been truly impressive to see their aptitude and quick transition to a fifth-generation aircraft that is so vastly different from the F-16.”
Over that four-year period, the wings received roughly two jets every month and immediately began putting them to use. In the spring of 2016, the 34th FS deployed six jets to RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom.
In some cases, the delivery process became so streamlined that the aircraft were able to fly combat training missions within 24 hours of arriving at Hill AFB. This was more than just convenient. It meant that it was possible to deliver a jet from the factory straight into combat if necessary.
Mission and support equipment
Fifth-generation technology on the F-35A requires more specialized equipment than legacy aircraft. Every system on the F-35A has an associated piece of equipment to keep aircraft loaded, fueled and flying.
There are more than a dozen critical pieces of heavy equipment, from the standard—power generators and weapons loaders, to the unique—13,000-pound air conditioners to cool the jet’s advanced avionics. There’s also other equipment—like the high-tech, personalized helmets that integrate with the jet’s mission systems—and computer and network systems to support flying and maintenance.
“At IOC (initial operational capability), we had the equipment to support one squadron that could do some semblance of combat operations. Now, as each squadron has progressed, and we’re on track to have all the required assets, we demonstrated that we can rely on the program for the technical support and weapons system parts we need while we deployed all our squadrons last summer,” Miles said.
In 2019, the wings proved that they could balance the equipment requirements to support all three squadrons away from home station – the 4th FS was deployed to the Middle East, the 421st FS was in Europe and the 34th FS spent two months at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. In a seven-day span the wings had aircraft, equipment and personnel operating out of nine different countries.
“It took everyone’s input—from E1 to O6—to get where we are today. Through hard work, providing programmatic feedback and developing new processes and procedures, we shaped and pushed the program. Each Airmen can look back with pride and see their contributions over the last four years standing up this wing, and enabling F-35A combat capability for our country,” Miles said.