Breaking news today, as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II started its first operational deployment outside the US ever. Departing Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, on 9 January, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 headed for Iwakuni airbase in Japan, bringing along their F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) jets.
From Yuma and in the company of KC-10 tanker aircraft, the F-35s first headed for Elmendorf airbase in Alaska, from where they should continue to their new base Japan. Iwakuni is a regular destination for United States Marine Corps (USMC) fighter jets, but this marks the first time the F-35B is send abroad operationally and in fact marks the first operational deployment for the F-35 ever. The step can be regarded as a huge one for the F-35 program, the biggest and most expensive weapon’s program ever in history.
Operations & tests
In July 2015, VMFA-121 was the very first squadron to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation fighter jet. In October 2016, a contingent of USMC F-35B’s, pilots and maintainers participated in Developmental Test III and the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration aboard the USS America (LHA-6). The final test period ensured the plane could operate in the most extreme at-sea conditions, with a range of weapons loadouts and with the newest software variant.
China & Trump
The deployment was announced for this year earlier, but the apparent eagerness for the deployment comes a surprise. This could very well be to deter China from further venturing out in international waters, but also to show president-elect Donald Trump that the F-35 is perfectly capable of operational deployment. Trump, who is just ten days away from being inaugurated as the next US president, showed no sympathy for the F-35 in late 2016, hinting the US would be better of with more F/A-18 Super Hornets.
The year 2017 is likely to also see a deployment of US Air Force F-35s to Europe. The USAF reached IOC on the new jet in 2016. That same year saw US F-35s heading out to Europe for the first time, albeit not for actual operational flying. The purpose of that visit was taking part in airshows in the UK.
The year 2017 will be the year that for the first time in history sees joint air defense over four European countries. Not only are Belgium and the Netherlands operating a combined Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) since 1 January 2017, starting this summer the Czech Republic and Slovakia will do the same. The latter countries today agreed on cooperation.
The joint efforts are quite remarkable in a time of increasing international tension, although the combined effort of Belgium and the Netherlands has been on the cards for quite some time already. Whereas until last year both countries each had four F-16s on constant standby, they now take turns in keeping an eye out for airliners gone astray or potential threats, thus saving costs. Being small countries, they apparently can afford slighly longer transit times for the F-16s to get close to the action.
Czechs and Slovaks
The Czechs and Slovakians also talked about joint air defense before, but mostly in light of Slovakia maybe also leasing Saab Gripen fighter jets, as does the Czech Republic. While Slovakia for now continues to operate older MiG-29 Fulcrums, both countries today still agreed to keep a watch over each other’s skies. The agreement should be officaly ratified and come into effect later this year.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what effect the cooperation between Belgium and the Netherlands has on the former’s selection of a new fighter jet to replace the F-16. The Netherlands has already opted for the F-35 Lightning II, but Belgium is still undediced. The Belgians are looking at the F-35, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Saab gripen and Dassault Rafale.
A total of 335,000 flight hours spread over 474,000 sorties. Yes, the numbers are impressive for the F-16A and B version in Israel. However, these early built F-16s finally left Israeli Air Force service on Monday 26 december 2016, more than 36 years after delivery of the first jets in 1980. Their final landing was at Ouvda airbase in the southern part of Israel.
These ‘original’ F-16s were named Netz in Hebrew and made famous by their role in taking out the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq on 7 June 1981, only a year or so after delivery of the first jets to Israel. By that time, an Israeli Air Force F-16 was already responsible for the very first air-to-air kill by an F-16.
Over the years, many dozens of F-16 Netz aircraft were extensively used by the Israelis and responsible for many more air-to-air victories. Nevertheless, more capable F-16C/D Barak and F-16I Sufa jets began taking over their role. The Netz was then used as a trainer aircraft, a role that also has some to end with the delivery of thirty M-346 Lavi trainer jets.
The last of these early model F-16s were flown by 115 ‘Flying Dragon squadron at Ouvda, who also used the Netz in an agressor role. Over the years, Israel already retired a substantial number of these jets.
According to Haaretz newspaper, 40 F-16s are now offered for sale. In the past, Israel already sold off substantial numbers of surplus A-4 Skyhawks. Most found a second life by being used for air combat training by civilian companies such as Draken International and Discovery Air Defence Services.
Donald Trump’s latest tweet on the F-35 will cause Lockheed Martin executives to have a not-so-merry Christmas, while the opposite will be true in the Boeing board room. After meeting top executives from both companies and being briefed on the F-35 this week, Trump on Thursday said he has asked Boeing to ‘price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet’.
Lockheed Martin’s stock immediately went down again, mirroring the effect of Trump’s earlier tweet about the F-35. However, the president-elect criticism probably is not pointed at the F-35 itself, but at the program’s costs. Trump has made it very clear now that he will not accept such overruns after he moves into the White House in January. At the same time, Donald Trump seems to be preparing for an arms race, even stating this week that the US should expand its nuclear capabilities.
Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!
Being the businessman that he is, Trump obviously wants to keep the costs of such an arms race down. He probably realizes that his country is at a disadvantage compared to Russia and China, who are able to produce weaponry against far lower costs. China for example is developing new stealthy jets at an impressive and alarming rate. In Russia, a single new Sukhoi T-50 is many millions and millions of dollars cheaper than a single new F-35. This is indeed worrying for Trump. The signs of an arms race are already there and not to be ignored.
When it comes to the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet as an alternative for the Lockheed Martin F-35 – that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It will definitely not be as stealthy and not as capable in the domain of gathering and spreading data. Also, the F-35 is getting closer to being fully combat ready every day.
But Trump most likely is not interested in ditching the F-35 in favour of a cheaper Super Hornet. He is interested in costs, and that may serve the US well in the end.
The Italian Air Force this week was the recipient of the very first F-35 Lightning II jets to be based in Europe. The two aircaft arrived at Amendola airbase after being assembled at the F-35 Final Assembly and Check Out facility in Cameri.
The two jets are in fact the fifth and sixth for the Italian Air Force. The first four aircraft are based at Luke Air Force Base in the US for pilot training. The Italian Air Force’s 32th Wing at Amendola airbase will be the first to operate the new jet in Europe.
The UK, the Netherlands and Norway also already fly the F-35. However, all do so in the US for testing and training. The Royal Netherlands Air Force ferried two jets to Europe last May for four weeks of testing. The Norwegians will introduce the F-35 in Norway in 2017.
The delivery in Italy took place in the same week that saw the first two F-35s delivered Italy. The Israelis started flying their jets immediately after delivery.