A series of images published today by the Pentagon confirm that the US Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II has flown its first combat mission during its inaugural deployment to the US Air Forces Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Images showed a pair of F-35As taking on fuel from a KC-10A Extender above an undisclosed location on April 26 and on April 30. According to accompanying captions for the April 26 photos, these showed the first aerial refuelling combat sortie for the F-35A. The April 30 photos included the following details: “The KC-10 and its crew were tasked to support aerial refuelling operations for the F-35A’s first air interdiction”. The F-35As had both underwing AIM-9X missiles and Luneburg lenses fitted.
Flying with a Luneburg lens to boost its radar signature deprives the jet of its ‘stealth mode’ but it is still capable of ‘hoovering up’ valuable emissions from radars and other emitters on the ground. This might include sophisticated Russian air defence systems deployed in Syria, including the much-vaunted S-400 (SA-21 Growler) surface-to-air missile.
US Air Forces Central Command announced on April 15 that F-35As from the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing (FW) and reserve 419th FW at Hill Air Force Base, Utah had been deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.
The first deployment of USAF F-35As to the Middle East marks an important milestone in the history of the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter. Although long expected, the first indications that the service’s Lightning IIs were headed to an operational theatre came with the touchdown of an initial cell of six jets at Morón Air Base in southern Spain on April 12. Another four jets arrived at the base en route to Al Dhafra three days later.
The F-35As at Al Dhafra are all assigned to the active-duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve Command’s (AFRC’s) 419th FW at Hill Air Force Base, Utah – the service’s only combat-ready Lightning II wings – and take up residency at a base previously used by USAF F-22As. The last F-22 deployment was completed in October, when Raptors from the 94th FS left Al Dhafra for their home at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, stopping off in Europe for a period of training en route.