Monday, November 16, 2009

Nellis officials plan for F-35's opportunities, challenges

The U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., is preparing for the arrival of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, like the one pictured here as it undergoes testing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

by Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- With the new F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft's arrival just four years away, officials at the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center here are looking forward to joint training opportunities while recognizing the challenges of providing realistic training on such a technologically advanced aircraft.

Maj. Gen. Stanley Kresge, the warfare center's commander, said there's a lot of excitement about the next-generation fighter jet slated to begin arriving here in 2014.

Much of the construction under way here will provide new hangars, maintenance facilities and other infrastructure the new aircraft will require. Meanwhile, General Kresge's staff is focused on establishing a new weapons school for F-35 pilots -- an effort he said lends itself to interservice collaboration as the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps prepare for their first joint aircraft program since the Vietnam War.

Unlike the Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber, initially developed for the Navy, then adopted by the Marine Corps and Air Force, the F-35 was conceived from the drawing board as a single platform with three different variants to meet the needs of three services.

The Air Force will receive the F-35's "A" variant, which will provide conventional takeoff and landing capabilities. The Marine Corps is slated to receive the "B" variant, which has a vertical-lift capability. The Navy will receive the "C" variant, designed for carrier launches.

Plans are on track to equip the first F-35 training squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., by 2011, and for the Marine Corps to reach initial operational capability by 2012.

General Kresge said he looks forward to working with his Navy counterparts as the Air Force stands up the first F-35 weapons school program at Nellis. Weapons schools provide graduate-level instructor courses, including the most advanced tactics, techniques and procedures for pilots and aircrews.

"If we are going to build a weapons school first, let's partner on it and then make it easier for them to build their weapons school," he said.

Even with three aircraft variants, the airplanes are going to be more alike than different, he said. "So since we are fundamentally going to be flying the same aircraft, I think we can all benefit from a closer collaboration," he said.

For the Air Force program, General Kresge expects to tap F-35 test pilots, along with other weapons school graduates who fly other aircraft. "We'll put them in a room, lock the door for six months, and they'll come up with the syllabus, courseware and academics," General Kresge said.

They'll share their efforts as the Navy Fighter Weapons School, known as "Top Gun," prepares to start up its own F-35 program, he said, while soliciting different approaches to incorporate into the Air Force program.

"It would make no sense for the Navy to discover a new way of doing business, and then a year later, we stumble onto it ourselves," General Kresge said.

The general stressed the importance of F-35 leader training to the future Air Force, noting that today's young fighter pilots will be tomorrow's F-35 squadron commanders.

"Set your watch," he said. "Fifteen years from now, we are going to want that F-35 squadron commander to be prepared to lead a squadron in war, and to bring along the squadron full of young lieutenants and captains to be the next squadron commander."

As General Kresge wrestles with the training and leadership challenges associated with the F-35, the staff here is working to ensure that when the F-35 arrives, crews will have the most realistic training environment possible at the sweeping Nevada Test and Training Range.

That's particularly challenging, explained Col. John P. Montgomery, the 98th Range Wing commander, because the F-35's systems are so advanced that they can tell simulated targets from the real thing.

"The F-35 is so smart that if it is not a real target, it won't let you hit it, because it knows what a real target is," he said. Colonel Montgomery oversees the nearly 3 million acres of ranges and 12,000 square miles of airspace that make up the Nevada Test and Training Range. A big part of the job is making the battle space as close as possible to what aircrews will experience in combat, including realistic targets.

So long before the F-35 arrives here, Montgomery and his staff are trying to figure out ways to build the next-generation targets the next-generation aircraft will need.

"We are planning ahead for it now, to give it the right kind of target sets that look visually, optically, [through] infrared and radar like the real thing," he said. "It's got to have the same acoustics, and smell like it, too."

Meanwhile, he's trying to figure out what kind of aircraft will be capable of standing in for the opposing force during advanced-level training exercises, and how to replicate multiple threats simultaneously.

"The F-35 is a very capable system, and we only have so many aircraft to throw against it," Colonel Montgomery said, noting the need to create virtual threats that the F-35 will recognize.

"It is not the same kind of problem that we used to solve," he said. "It was an easier problem before stealth [technology], and the fact that these [F-35s] are just amazingly capable. All of a sudden, the targets have to look a lot like the real thing, and the threats have to be a lot more capable, and there have to be a lot of them."

Colonel Montgomery said he's committed to working through those challenges before the F-35s start arriving at Nellis. "It's a tough problem," he said. "But the Air Force knows about it, the Department of Defense knows about it. Lots of people are working on it to solve that problem."

Ultimately, the goal is to provide F-35 crews the same level of training their counterparts receive at the Nevada Test and Training Range. "In the end, the guy gets real feedback, real time about how we has done against the threat he's going at, in a high-pressure environment," Colonel Montgomery said. "And he gets to live -- and to come back and do it all over again tomorrow."