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F-35As deploy to test readiness

An F-35A parks for the night under the sunshades at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Feb. 18, 2016. The F-35s are testing their combat capabilities through an operational deployment test at Mountain Home AFB range complexes.

Six F-35As arrived at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Feb. 8, from Edwards AFB, Calif., to begin an operational deployment test at a nearby range complex. The test will help develop the concept of operations as well as validate the aircraft’s capability to deploy.

In order for the Air Force to declare initial operating capability for the F-35A, the aircraft must be able to execute three key mission sets: suppression and destruction of enemy air defense, air interdiction missions, as well as conduct basic close air support – to include alert launches. Each of these functions will be executed in a limited capacity to measure the effectiveness of the weapons system in line with the IOC progress. The deployment test is designed not only to identify capabilities, but also any limitations the aircraft may have.

As a fifth generation fighter with electronic warfare and multi-spectral fused sensor capabilities the F-35 is designed to be comparable to current tactical fighters in terms of maneuverability, but optimized for stealth. The base offers the perfect environment and integration experiences to test the aircraft’s abilities, forming the foundation for deployed F-35 operations.

“Mountain Home offers excellent integration opportunities with F-15E and A-10 aircraft,” said Maj. Christopher White, F-35 project manager with the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron. “This combined with outstanding airspace capable of providing F-35s with a robust threat laydown makes Mountain Home the ideal location to assess the F-35s ability to operate while deployed.”

Maj. Ethan Sabin, 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron assistant director of operations, prepares to taxi to the end of the runway for take-off at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Feb. 12, 2016. The 31st TES from Edwards AFB, Calif., is part of the 53rd Wing at Eglin AFB, Fla., which tests, evaluates, and delivers effective and sustainable combat capabilities to perfect lethality and survivability of the nation’s combat forces.

While at Mountain Home, the F-35s fly approximately four sorties per day with their fourth generation counterparts, dropping 20-30 inert weapons during multiple training scenarios throughout the test.

“The ranges and airspace here allow us to drop weapons and fly sorties at rates we can’t back home,” said Maj. Colin Marshall, chief of standardization and evaluation, also with the 31st TES. “It’s fun to find a target by talking to ground controllers, drop a bomb on that target, and then watch an A-10 roll in and strafe it, all while an F-15E orbits supersonic above and prepares for the next attack.”

With innovative capabilities, the fifth generation F-35 is able to meet security needs for the U.S. and provide the warfighter unprecedented situational awareness and the required survivability to fight and win in highly contested environments.

“The F-35 is the future of the Air Force fighter inventory,” Marshall said, “Fifteen to 20 years from now, it will make up the vast majority of our fighter force so it’s important we wring it out as much as we can now so it can be the best jet possible when our kids are flying it.”

By validating the aircraft’s proficiencies during this deployment test, policy makers will be able to make informed decisions about the readiness of the F-35A toward IOC.

As the largest Department of Defense acquisition program in history, the thorough testing of the aircraft and its supporting infrastructure is immensely important, White explained.

An airman prepares an F-35A for take-off at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Feb. 12, 2016. The aircraft is here to validate its capability to deploy as part of an operational test by the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron from Edwards AFB, Calif.

“With the massive investment and planned longevity of this program, it’s entirely possible that our sons and daughters will fly the [joint strike fighter] in future wars. Simply put, we have to get this right,” he said.

So far the testing is going better than expected; the results have been very satisfying from a test and pilot perspective, Marshall explained. With a few lessons already learned, the aircrews hope to continue to have successes during the deployment test.  

The 31st TES is a geographically separated unit of the 53rd Wing, headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

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