Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 became the first operational F-35 Lightning II squadron to fire an air-to-air missile Sept. 15, during a 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group Weapons System Evaluation Program at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
This feat was completed during Combat Archer, the U.S. Air Force’s air-to-air Weapons System Evaluation Program executed by the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron here.
“To be the first operational F-35 unit to test fire is a good feeling, and I know the Marines are really excited about it,” said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Chad Vaughn, VMFA 211 commander. “There is a lot of discussion about it throughout the F-35 community. I think it is a significant step forward, especially for the pilots, knowing the weapon system works as advertised, and it works so successfully. We got some great data from the guys here at Tyndall and the WSEP.”
The WSEP is an evaluation conducted to prepare and evaluate operational fighter squadrons’ readiness for combat operations. The program evaluates all phases of combat operations from weapons loading to aircraft performance, aircrew performance and weapons performance: an end-to-end kill-chain evaluation of man, weapon and machine combat in a realistic environment.
While at Tyndall, VMFA 211 brought four F-35s and 112 Marines to complete their unit’s first deployment.
“For our squadron, this was our first deployment,” Vaughn said. “We took a small footprint of Marines, and we had significant challenges in terms of logistics. But it was awesome, it was both a confidence and morale builder as well as motivational for pilots and Marines. It showed the Marines that regardless of how old or young you are that when you shoot a live weapon it is always a learning experience.”
Vaughn, also a pilot, was able to see firsthand the capabilities of the F-35 and its weapon systems in a joint effort between Marines and Air Force while at the WSEP.
“We just saw it today,” Vaughn said. “We did some integration exercise with the F-22 [Raptor], and our awareness of the battlespace especially combined with the F-22 helps out the whole team. This is done not just kinetically, but also non-kinetically. We do a lot via data links and our overall situational awareness — helping to give either the F-22 or legacy fourth generational aircraft better awareness in the air.”
He further elaborated how multi-branch aerial exercises and missions can be more easily completed by how those in the F-35 community have changed their communication style.
“One of the things we have tried to do in the F-35 program is we have taken a joint approach,” Vaughn said. “We fly ‘common airplane’ and have taken a common approach to our tactics and how we speak to each other. This has paid huge dividends. Basically when we go to work with people, whether it’s an Air Force F-16 [Fighting Falcon], F-22or a Marine or Navy F-18 [Hornet] squadron, we are all generally speaking the same language. The point of emphasis for us was that we can work with anyone. Just the nature of this program has made us more compatible.”
As the VMFA 211 is a relatively new unit, designated June 30, 2016, Vaugh closed with the importance of exercises and deployments such as this one.
“One of the things I tell the Marines is that we are a new platform, and we need to learn to deploy,” Vaughn said. “And the only way you learn how to deploy efficiently is to pack up your stuff up and get out there and do it. This was a baby step for us. We have more to come getting the aircraft and the Marines ready to go.”
According to the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group factsheet, the 83rd FWS evaluates the total air-to-air weapons system including aircraft, weapon delivery system, weapon, aircrew, support equipment, technical data and maintenance actions during WSEP.
The squadron hosts 38 air-to-air WSEP deployments annually here. The annual firing of 300 missiles evaluates all Air Force air-to-air missile capabilities for the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, AIM-7 Sparrow missile, AIM-9 Sidewinder missile and aircraft guns, and also provides live missile training for combat Air Force crews as a secondary objective. Squadron personnel verify weapon system performance, determine reliability, evaluate capability and limitations, identify deficiencies, recommend corrective action and maintain Combat Air Force-wide data.
The 53rd WEG is a geographically separated unit of the 53rd Wing, headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.