The ability to respond to a threat at any time, from anywhere in the world, is a cornerstone of U.S. air dominance. Student-pilots from the 63rd Fighter Squadron recently completed a mission designed to demonstrate this ability, and to push the boundaries of F-35A Lightning II pilot training.
The mission marked a shift in how 63rd FS pilots are trained, and confirmed the U.S. Air Force’s ability to quickly compose force packages from any operational environment, no matter how austere.
Mission planners designed the mission to test how students perform during “full-spectrum, complex mission execution,” said Lt. Col. Jason Curtis, 63rd FS commander. “The goal of the mission was to survive in a contested environment and gain access to a forward armament refueling point.”
A forward armament refueling point, or FARP, is a strategic location at which aircraft can quickly refuel, re-arm, and return to combat with minimal infrastructure or manpower requirements.
“What makes this mission unique is the challenge of integrating both high altitude and low altitude tactics to destroy and survive advanced air threats and surface to air threats,” said Curtis.
During the planning process, Curtis, along with 56th Fighter Wing leadership, leveraged information and expertise from Air Force Operational Test & Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) Detachment 6 based at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
“Understanding how well the F-35 performs in accessing a FARP is a previously unexplored component of analyzing how well the aircraft can perform in theater,” said Col. Dan Javorsek, commander of AFOTEC Det 6. “This opportunity to both assist AETC in developing F-35 pilots, as well as provide influential Agile Combat Employment (ACE) data for the F-35 fleet, was too important to pass up.”
According to Lt. Col. Joe Goldsworthy, 56th FW chief of safety, the information offered by AFOTEC engineers “enabled us to enhance our training level by providing a precedent for dynamic off station events typically not achievable in the local training areas on a normal day-to-day basis.”
“Typical student training usually takes place in an operating area near base,” said Curtis. “[Because of this,] students get very familiar with the airspace, threat locations, and fight directions, which degrades the dynamics of the training potential.”
Taking those students out of a typical training environment and placing them into an unknown airspace “exposes them to problems they haven’t seen before, and forces them to think critically rather than apply a predetermined solution,” he said.
As a result, pilots used the F-35’s embedded training (ET) system, which allowed them to fight against simulated threats without needing physical threat emitters.
“ET lets us exit our usual training environment, decouple from physical threat assets, and conduct missions without sacrificing fidelity,” Curtis said.
ET also affords F-35 pilots the ability to replicate any current or emerging threat, and allows them to build tactics to overcome those threats.
The larger strategic impact of this mission was not forgotten among 63rd FS and 56th FW leadership.
“This mission shows that the F-35 is strategically capable of fighting its way through heavily contested airspace in a challenging and dynamic environment, rearming, refueling and proceeding even further without the need for support from more vulnerable aircraft like airborne tankers or [command and control] assets,” said Goldsworthy.
Not only can they accomplish this task, he said, “but we can do so successfully with inexperienced pilots. No other pilot could perform at this level without much more extensive training,” said Javorsek. “It is great to see the 63rd [FS] leading as we transition from training fingers to training brains.”
This mission also demonstrates “the innovation taking place in our training squadrons will let us pursue adaptive basing and execute Lilly Pad Operations when responding to adversaries,” said Curtis.
Lilly Pad Operations refers to the idea of aircraft “hopping” from one location to another along a strategic route.
“FARPs play a critical role in support of Lilly Pad Operations, and allow our F-35 fleet to operate abroad with minimal manpower, logistics, or infrastructure requirements,” Curtis added.
Due to the F-35’s multirole capabilities in all warfare domains “it serves as a node in a network of domain-agnostic assets,” said Curtis.
Domain-agnostic warfare refers to the ability to create combat effects from any warfighting domain, rather than the traditional methods that tend to focus on platforms.
“As our adversaries continue to become more advanced, we have to change the way we test, and train. By starting with what effect needs to be created and then finding the right platform at the time of need we enable adaptation in a Mosaic battlespace,” said Javorsek. “That out antiquated way of planning and training is essentially over. Winning the next war will come down to the speed at which we adapt, and these non-traditional rearming/refueling events help us flesh out what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t.”
“Missions of this kind have an initial amount of inefficiency,” said Curtis. “But sacrificing small amounts of efficiency for the reward of teaching our pilots how to think when in the cockpit, is absolutely a worthwhile investment.”
After completing the mission, it was clear to 63rd FS and 56th FW leadership that the mission was beneficial to student F-35 pilots.
“This high-end training mission shows not only what our students can do, but also the capabilities of our incredible support from ground personnel, mission planning experts and highlights our interoperability as a lethal team,” said Goldsworthy. “I am consistently in awe of what my Air Force is capable of and truly proud and humbled to be part of a mission like this.”