Key point: The F-35 can be sluggish compared to the F-16. Its pilots primarily train to fight long-range air battles using beyond-visual-range missiles.
The same week that U.S. Air Force F-35A stealth fighters dropped their first bombs in combat, F-35s from the same Utah base took part in a sprawling aerial war game involving dozens of warplanes flying more than 100 missions.
The exercise over Hill Air Force Base underscored the growing role of the F-35 in USAF training and operations. Despite the new fighter’s low readiness and the continuing debate over just how many of the radar-evading planes the Pentagon should buy and how fast, the F-35 is becoming more important by the day to the world’s biggest air force.
For two weeks starting in late April 2019, F-16s from the Air Force’s New Mexico-based 311th Fighter Squadron and South Korea-based 80th Fighter Squadron along with “adversary” planes from private firm Draken International deployed to Hill to fly alongside F-35s from the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing and reserve 419th Fighter Wing.
Some of Hill’s F-35s are on deployment in the Middle East, where on April 30, 2019, they dropped guided bombs on Islamic State forces in Iraq, marking the Air Force’s combat debut with the new stealth fighter.
In all, around 40 F-16s, F-35s and adversary planes few mock combat over Utah, practicing attacking a defending Hill’s runways and facilities. Draken didn’t specify which of its fighter types it dedicated to the war game. The company operates old A-4s and Mirage F.1s, among other types.
The exercise gave new F-16 pilots with the 311th Fighter Squadron a chance to tangle with pilots flying America’s newest fighter. “For the first week, the pilots flew basic fighter maneuvers – one versus one engagements commonly called ‘dogfighting,’” the Air Force stated. “They also flew advanced combat maneuvers, two aircraft versus four or more enemy aircraft. The students fly in a two-seat F-16, with an instructor in the back.”