Early results came in from the US Air Force's realistic, challenging Red Flag air combat exercise — and it looks like the F-35 slaughtered the competition.
Aviation Week reports that the Joint Strike Fighter killed 15 aggressors for each F-35 downed. The F-35 achieved this remarkable ratio in a drastically increased threat environment that included radar jamming, increased air threats, and surface-to-air missile batteries.
"In the past, the non-kinetic effects were not fully integrated into the kinetic fight," Col. Robert Cole, the Air Force Cyber Forward director, said in a statement.
But now F-35s take on cyberthreats and electronic warfare in addition to enemy surveillance and conventional, or kinetic, threats.
"This integration in an exercise environment allows our planners and warfighters to understand how to best integrate these, learn their capabilities and limitations, and become ready to use [these combined resources for maximum] effect against our adversaries," Cole said.
But the F-35s didn't just shoot down the enemy — they used their sensor-fusion and data link abilities to talk to other planes and help them sniff out threats they wouldn't have seen on their own.
"Before, where we would have one advanced threat and we would put everything we had — F-16s, F-15s, F-18s, missiles, we would shoot everything we had at that one threat just to take it out — now we are seeing three or four of those threats at a time," Lt. Col. George Watkins, 34th Fighter Squadron commander, told Aviation Week.
"Just between [the F-35] and the [F-22] Raptor, we are able to geolocate them, precision-target them, and then we are able to bring the fourth-generation assets in behind us after those threats are neutralized," Watkins said. "It's a whole different world out there for us now."
The ability of fifth-generation US aircraft to detect threats and send that information to legacy planes meets an urgent need for the US military.
As adversarial nations like China and Russia improve their counter-stealth abilities and air defenses, numbers increasingly matter.
The F-35 repeatedly hit cost and schedule overruns during its production and is now years behind schedule. But the latest performance at Red Flag shows that even a handful of F-35s can improve an entire squadron's performance.
The current Red Flag exercise will conclude on February 10.
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