The F-35A Lightning II fighter has demonstrated its capacity to take on 21st-century threats at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada during the latest Red Flag Exercise. Flown by airmen from the 388th Fighter Wing's 4th Fighter Squadron, the 5th generation fighter took part in the aerial war games earlier this month involving 3,000 personnel from the US Navy, US Air Force, Royal Air Force, and the Royal Australian Air Force.

Red Flag is an exercise that's conducted by the US Air Force four to six times a year at Nellis Air Force Base to help American and allied forces to hone their air combat skills. It was started after the very poor performance of American warplanes during the Vietnam War and is designed to offer very realistic combat situations to both train pilots and to analyze defects in aerial tactics.

It's an intense exercise that involves not only 90-min flights, but also 12 hrs of intense mission planning the day before. The threat scenarios are also designed to escalate as the days go on, so strengths and weaknesses can be identified.

According to the Air Force, for decades Red Flag was a predictable exercise because tactics remained relatively static, but in recent years the environment has changed radically and combat has become much more complex. The latest Red Flag reflects this with its emphasis on introducing a much more advanced adversary force with modern air defense systems, the latest aircraft, and cyber-warfare threats capable of active electronic attack, communications jamming, and GPS denial.

"Those situations highlight the fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35. We're still able to operate and be successful. In a lot of cases we have a large role as an integrated quarterback," said Lieutenant Colonel Yosef Morris, 4th Fighter Squadron commander. "Our ability to continue to fuse and pass information to the entire package makes every aircraft more survivable."

Twelve F-35s from the 4th Air Squadron took part with 13 pilots who'd never flown a Lightning II in Red Flag and four just out of training. What was surprising was that when the F-35s took on a larger force of 60 Blue Air fighters in a counter-air mission, the Lightings were able to more than hold their own by blinding them with their advanced electronic attack capabilities.

"I've never seen anything like it before," says Colonel Joshua Wood, 388th Operations Group commander. "This is not a mission you want a young pilot flying in. My wingman was a brand new F-35A pilot, seven or eight flights out of training. He gets on the radio and tells an experienced, 3,000-hour pilot in a very capable fourth-generation aircraft. 'Hey bud, you need to turn around. You're about to die. There's a threat off your nose.'"

The Air Force says the pilot in question scored four "kills" during the hour-long fight.

"With stealth, the F-35 can get closer to threats than many other aircraft can. Combined with the performance of the fused sensors on the F-35, we can significantly contribute to the majority of the missions," says Morris. "As this aircraft matures, we continue to see it be a significant force-multiplier in a threat-dense environment. Red Flag was a success for us and has made our younger pilots more lethal and more confident."

View gallery - 4 images