2016-08-02 By Todd Miller
Even before the USAF declared the F-35As initial operational capability (IOC) on August 2, they were well ahead of the curve planning the next phase of the F-35A program.
This next phase is focused on the priority of F-35A integration within the USAF fighter fleet, and in particular with the F-22 Raptor.
To that end a 5th Generation Integration Conference was hosted on July 20 & 21 by the 1st FW at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA. Col. Pete Fesler, 1st FW Commander [F-22], and Col. David Lyons, 388th FW Commander [F-35A] discussed the conference, and the integration of the USAF 5th Generation fleet of F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II.
Lyons and Fesler both noted that significant integration of 5th Gen fighters with the 4th Gen fighters has been underway and effective. The F-22As have been very active over past years integrating through exercises such as Red Flag, Checkered Flag and more while the F-35As at Hill AFB have been working extensively with the local F-16s.
However, F-22 integration with the 4th Gen fleet has been more of a stop gap effort while looking forward to the introduction of the F-35A.
As Fesler says, “The F-35 is here.
“We need to start determining the path to integrate the F-22 and F-35A as part of the joint team right now.”
Lyons noted that from the outset, the F-22 and F-35A were part of the USAFs resourcing strategy, envisioned to work together as a team. F-35As joining the fleet represent the realization of that vision.
These two aircraft are the leading edge of the Air Force fighter fleet, and their integration on tactical, operational and support levels is a priority.
It is well known that each aircraft bring unrivaled 21st Century situational awareness to the battlespace, and yet each has a distinct strength.
Fesler paraphrased comments made by Gen. H. “Hawk” Carlisle, “the F-35 is the best A2A platform in the world, except for the F-22. The F-22 is the best A2G platform in the world, except for the F-35.”
Fesler continued, “So we have two aircraft, one designed primarily for A2G, one primarily for A2A, both with complimentary capabilities to assist each other in either role.
Together they create a team that is optimized to simultaneously go after air and surface threats.”
The 5th Gen Integration Conference assembled the Commanders of the Fighter Wings that operate the F-22 and F-35 to discuss all aspects of operational activity underway.
How the units/aircraft will train together
The units/aircraft will operate in combat together to maximize effectiveness in the battlespace.
How the units/aircraft will be best manned and systems maintained for maximum efficiencies is a work in progress.
The Raptors have a decade of 5th Generation “real world” experience to share with the F-35A.
Lessons learned from airframe and systems maintenance, low observability maintenance and more may be adopted by the F-35A community to make their experience more efficient.
At the same time, information will flow back from the F-35 global fleet to the F-22 and generate opportunities for specific retrofits to the F-22 fleet, as well as integration lessons.
Fesler explained that greater gains will be realized for both aircraft as all associated personnel “cross-flow” between platforms.
Fesler acknowledged that the while the interchange of information between 5th and 4th Gen platforms was challenging, the sharing between 5th and 5th Gen platforms was relatively seamless.
Legacy systems of the 4th Gen aircraft require substantial upgrades to effectively communicate the high volume of battlespace information (e.g. Talon Hate pods).
Even though the F-22 has been in service over 10 years, its systems have maintained adequate pace with the F-35As systems, ensuring seamless data communication and a shared picture of the battlespace.
Fesler notes that while the F-22 is optimized for A2A and can work through the SAM problems as well as hit high value targets, the F-35 is designed “100% to find any ground threat and make it go away” even while providing a very solid A2A capability.
Lyons indicated that the F-22/F-35 tandem is the team required in peer or near peer environments with advanced A2A and A2G threats.
The F-35 will provide the team leadership with SEAD, DEAD, Dynamic targeting, EW as well as passing tremendous amounts of information to the entire Blue team, all while the F-22 provides the primary A2A protection.
I am left with the distinct feeling that the team driven Fesler and Lyons are more than confident in their aircraft to take on any challenge with either aircraft, and yet gratified to go to the fight delivering an unrivaled 21st century team to deliver a one-two punch
Special Thanks to the USAF ACC 633 ABW Public Affairs Team, Col. Pete Fesler, Commander 1st Fighter Wing, and Col. David Lyons, Commander 388th Fighter Wing.
Photo Credits to the USAF from previous F-22 and F-35 combat training exercise at Eglin AFB.
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