F-35A joins Red Flag-Alaska, soars to new heights

An F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron climbs into a cockpit during Red Flag-Alaska 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 4 2020. This iteration of RF-A was the first to feature F-35s, the newest generation of fighter aircraft in the Air Force inventory. (Air Force photograph by Staff Sgt. Annalou Huerta)

Throughout the years, numerous types of aircraft have flown in the Alaskan skies during Red Flag-Alaska. This year, a new fifth-generation fighter joins the fight.

The 356th Fighter Squadron and 388th Fighter Wing’s F-35A Lightning IIs are the first F-35s to participate in the U.S. Pacific Air Forces-sponsored exercise. 

“The purpose of Red Flag-Alaska is to provide training for the aircrew participating on the blue-air side in order to increase mission readiness and prepare them for combat operations,” said Lt. Col. Randolph Kinsey, 18th Aggressor Squadron commander.

Unlike recent RF-A exercises, the F-35s have given the 354th FW a chance to have the ‘home team’ play as blue air to enhance their warfighting capabilities.

“We’ve been flying F-35s for the past three months and this is the first Red Flag exercise for the 356th FS,” said Lt. Col. James Christensen, 356th FS commander.

An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, soars through the sky during Red Flag-Alaska (RF-A) 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 7, 2020. All RF-A exercises take place in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex over Alaska as well as a portion of western Canadian airspace. (Air Force photograph by Aaron Larue Guerrisky)

The presence of fifth-generation aircraft will make this iteration of RF-A a bit different from past exercises.

“The F-35 brings more information to the airspace than we’ve had in previous generations of aircraft,” Christensen said. “This Red Flag is really unique because we now have all fifth-generation fighters on the blue side. When we combine those forces together we can be more lethal.”

Once the 356th FS received its first F-35s in April, the F-35 pilots wasted no time learning the ins and outs of RF-A’s 77,000-square mile playground, also known as the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex.

“What we had to do is get our pilots ready for this Red Flag by flying as much as we possibly could to get proficient in the airplane,” Christensen said. “For us, this is kind of the intro to the airspace and an intro to four-ship tactics. This is the first time we’ve flown four aircraft together at the same time and we are combining the other F-35s and F-22s to make a large-force exercise.”

An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, approaches the flightline during Red Flag-Alaska (RF-A) 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 10, 2020. RF-A executes the world’s premier tactical joint and coalition air combat employment exercise, designed to replicate the stresses that warfighters face during their first eight to 10 combat sorties. (Air Force photograph by Aaron Larue Guerrisky)

Christensen mentioned pilots train on a basic fundamental skills-type progression, which means pilots start at basic skills and work up to advanced tactics. RF-A offers a realistic combat feeling for pilots to train exactly how they fight, he said.

“They can simulate that environment here at Red Flag with the 353rd CTS (Combat Training Squadron) and in the JPARC. They can give us realistic threats, jam our communications, jam our navigation systems and they can give us these problems that I want my young wingmen and my experienced flight leads to experience,” Christensen said.

Now that the 354th FW established the F-35 in Alaska and will grow in size with a second F-35 squadron, the goal for future exercises is to see even more fifth-generation aircraft from Pacific partners join the fight.

“What we need to do in the future and what we have planned for the next Red Flag iteration later this year is we are going to start bringing in partner countries and allies from across INDOPACOM,” Christensen said. “There are F-35s that are going out to Australia, Japan and Korea, and in the future we want to bring those F-35s up here and practice and train … so that we have a standard set of tactics, techniques and procedures.”

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