on April 30, 2019, U.S. Air Force has finally flown its variant of the F-35 in combat, using two of the aircraft to take out an ISIS tunnel network and weapons cache in Iraq
Two Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II belonging to the contingent from active duty 388th and reserve 419th Fighter Wings at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed since Apr. 15, 2019, to Al Dhafra, UAE, have conducted the very first air strike in support of Combined Joint Task Force
According to U.S. Air Forces Central Command, the airstrike occurred at Wadi Ashai, in northeast Iraq. An April 24 news release from U.S. Central Command stated that ISIS fighters “have been attempting to move munitions, equipment and personnel” to Wadi Ashai in order to “set conditions for their resurgence,” prompting a counter-offensive by Iraqi Security Forces and supported by Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.
“The F-35As conducted the airstrike using a Joint Direct Attack Munition to strike an entrenched Daesh tunnel network and weapons cache deep in the Hamrin Mountains, a location able to threaten friendly forces,” stated the AFCENT release, which used an alternative name for ISIS.
“We have the ability to gather, fuse and pass so much information, that we make every friendly aircraft more survivable and lethal,” said Lt. Col. Yosef Morris, 4th Fighter Squadron commander and F-35A pilot in a public release. “That, combined with low-observable technology, allows us to really complement any combined force package and be ready to support AOR contingencies. […] The F-35A has sensors everywhere, it has advanced radar, and it is gathering and fusing all this information from the battlespace in real time,” said Morris. Now it has the ability to take that information and share it with other F-35s or even other fourth generation aircraft in the same package that can also see the integrated picture.”
Further information about the event, including whether the strikes were successful, was not made available in the release.
The most interesting thing about the baptism of fire of the USAF Lightning is the configuration of the aircraft exposed by the photographs released by CENTCOM. Indeed, the aircraft carry their radar reflectors/RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers as well as external AIM-9X Sidewinder AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles): in other words, the aircraft were not flying in “stealth mode”.
An Air Force airstrike using the F-35A has been widely anticipated for weeks, after the service deployed the fighter jet to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates on April 15. The service has not specified how many F-35s are now operating in the Middle East, but all jets are from the 388th Fighter Wing and the 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
The F-35, made by Lockheed Martin, is the U.S. military’s newest fighter jet. The program has been beset by cost and schedule overruns since its start about 20 years ago, and the Government Accountability Office estimates that the program will cost in excess of $1 trillion over its lifetime.