usaf luke afb f-35
Copyright: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Danielle Charmichael

Luke F-35s from 62nd and 308th Fighter Squadrons trains in Gunfighter Flag exercise

The 62nd and 308th Fighter Squadrons participated in the Gunfighter Flag Large Force Exercise, Aug. 17-21 at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The five-day exercise deployed U.S. and foreign partners’ fighter squadrons and units from across the Department of Defense to train in air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Luke AFB sent 38 pilots in total throughout the week to execute the mission at Mountain Home.

The exercise brought together many different airframes in order to train at a more difficult and complex level than we normally train to on a weekly basis at home,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Jordan Levine, 62nd FS activity security manager.

The exercise featured many aircraft including the F-35A Lightning II, F-15 Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, HH-60 Pave Hawk, A-10 Thunderbolt II, EA-18G Growler, KC-135 Stratotanker and the KC-10 Extender. Different aircraft worked together to complete missions with Offensive Counter-Air (OCA) and Defensive Counter-Air (DCA) scenarios.

As an F-35 pilot, I know my jet’s advantages and disadvantages very well,” said Levine. “Flying with such a diverse number of jets allows us to expand our knowledge base to platforms that we don’t typically train with. We figure out how to leverage each platform’s strengths and how to mitigate the weaknesses.

For the 62nd FS the exercise was executed largely by F-35 instructor pilots as continuation training and gave them better insight into F-35 capabilities so they can in turn provide better training for student pilots.

It’s very important for them to see good, realistic emitters so they know what to instruct to,” said a Norwegian air force major from the 62nd FS. “Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) is our bread and butter for the F-35 and that is what this jet is built for. They’re going to need to instruct at a level where you know what you’re talking about instead of just reading it in a book.

During the exercise, pilots encountered enemy weapon systems including surface-to-air missiles (SAM), man-portable air-defense systems and tactical ballistic missiles to give them a diverse training experience.

The Mountain Home Range is a great environment for us because it is something new,” said Levine. “New airspace, new terrain, new threats, etc. Sometimes fighting the same fight here at Luke can make you complacent. Fighting new threats and different adversaries keeps you on your toes, and shows you new problems that you haven’t dealt with at home station.

Levine explained that while the exercise pushes pilots to adapt to combat situations, the whole exercise forced the squadrons to adapt due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 pandemic.

Being able to adapt is the main reason we were actually able to participate in the exercise,” said Levine. “Plan A was to go TDY (temporary duty) to Mountain Home to participate in person. Plan B was to go TDY to Hill AFB, fly to Mountain Home for the exercise and then recover back to Hill. Those two game plans were impossible because of COVID-19. Plan C is what we executed. Without the ability to adapt to the changing environment, we would have missed out.

Luke AFB pilots minimized contact, refueling before and after the mission to prevent landing at Mountain Home AFB, ensuring pilots started and ended the mission at their respective bases and attended briefs and debriefs virtually.

It’s a balance of risk, we still need to produce fighter pilots,” said a Norwegian air force major from the 62nd FS. “I think this is a very good operational risk assessment of how we can make this happen as safe as possible and still get the training we need.