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How the U.S. Air Force Is Getting the F-35 Ready for a War with China

F-35 Stealth Fighter
F-35 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

A U.S.-China war would be an event even more historic and dangerous than the RussiaUkraine conflict today. The U.S. Air Force is working to ensure that the F-35 is ready for that fight: The realities of Great Power Competition have forced the Pentagon back to the drawing board, working on new ways to fight in a near-peer environment, or at least, finding new ways to improve upon the old ones.

The U.S. military knows that despite their varying military capabilities and strategic shortcomings, China and Russia aren’t the ragtag and ill-equipped insurgents American troops have had to fight for the past two decades in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

The Chinese and Russian militaries present a potent and credible threat to the U.S. military. And the joint force would have to fight a completely different war in order to prevail against Beijing or Moscow.

For a start, U.S. forces won’t be able to attain—at least at the start of a conflict—the same air superiority over the battlefield that the nation has enjoyed in the last wars. Further, American forces and bases on the ground won’t be safe. China and Russia possess potent short, medium, and long-range weapon systems that can strike forward-based and stateside airbases, and they possess them in sufficient volume to overwhelm even the most advanced air defense assets America might deploy in such a fight. The recent advent of hypersonic weapons, considered indefensible by modern air defense systems, has further compromised the safety of bases near and far from the enemy.

The ability, thus, to disperse and operate aircraft from unconventional and impromptu airbases might end up being critical in a high-end conflict. The U.S. Air Force understands this very well and has been working on two key concepts in that vein: Agile Combat Employment (ACE) and Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP).

A recent training exercise held in Japan called Iron Dagger showed how the U.S. Air Force plans to fight a war with China in the Indo-Pacific and the importance of the ACE and FARP operations.

Operation Iron Dagger and the F-35

During Operation Iron Dagger, the Air Force demonstrated its ability to rapidly deploy F-35A Lighting II fighter jets from the 354th Air Expeditionary Wing with very little notice, sending them to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan. This test of the branch’s Agile Combat Employment (ACE) capabilities than transitioned into an effort to rapidly re-fuel and re-arm these and other fighters on austere airstrips, in a demonstration of the Air Force’s Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) capabilities.

The F-35As, which are the conventional landing and take-off variant of the 5th generation fighter jet, worked with the III Marine Expeditionary Force’s F-35Bs, which is the Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the aircraft.

“This DFE [dynamic force employment] operation has demonstrated our ability to rapidly mobilize and deploy fifth-generation airpower across the Indo-Pacific theater,” U.S. Air Force Colonel David Berkland, the commanding officer of the 354th Air Expeditionary Wing, said.

“It’s been a great opportunity for the 354th FW team to refine ACE operations, strengthen partnerships and sharpen joint interoperability.”

Airmen from the 18th Logistics Readiness Squadron and the 1st Special Operations Squadron supported the stealth aircraft during the FARP portion of the operation.

The F-35’s “A” and “B” variants have been certified for ACE deployments through several exercises now, and through a combination of those and FARP capabilities, the Air Force believes it could wreak havoc on not only enemy targets, but their planning capabilities as well.

ACE Operations: Getting There Is Half the Fight

ACE, or Agile Combat Employment, requires a unit to quickly mobilize and deploy its fighter jets across a region, such as the Indo-Pacific area of operations.

Having the ability to present a flexible theater posture that isn’t tied down to a few major bases but that can move fluidly and be adjusted depending on the operational circumstances on the ground is paramount for a lethal force that seeks to counter a near-peer adversary in the 21st century.

The National Defense Strategy that came out last year specifically mentions the need for the Pentagon to develop a lethal and agile force posture. U.S. ground, naval, and air forces need to be able to deploy rapidly in an area and conduct dispersed, sustained operations if need be. That means conducting operations from what would normally be considered austere locations and airstrips, as large military bases would quickly become targets in a near-peer conflict.

For example, in the event of a conflict with China, Air Force units operating in the Indo-Pacific would need to disperse their aircraft to prevent a catastrophic scenario in which a Chinese missile attack or an air raid takes out a large number of aircraft on the ground. Such an attack doesn’t necessarily even have to destroy the aircraft themselves to render them combat ineffective.

A few well-placed munitions can seriously damage or destroy the runways that the aircraft need to take off from and land on, making the aircraft useless without the need for a direct hit. Although the Air Force is seeking ways to minimize the repair time on damaged runways, a partially or completely destroyed airstrip would most likely ground any aircraft on the base until those repairs could be made.

This concern is nothing new, and in fact, the the U.S. military once pursued the development of tail-sitting fighters that would take-off and land in a nose-up position, using their massive props to hover like helicopters, thus eliminating the need for runways. This approach proved impractical, but the likelihood of attacks on airbases in the initial volleys of a new World War have only gone up since then.

By dispersing aircraft and quickly moving them around a theater of operations, the Air Force is increasing their survivability and making it harder for an adversary to take them out. This approach is both more cost effective and practical than developing specialized aircraft with no need for airstrips.

But aircraft need more than just an airstrip. They also need ammo and fuel to operate, and that’s where the FARP concept comes in.

FARP Operations: Getting fighters back into the fight

The cornerstone of FARP, or Forward Arming and Refueling Point, operations is speed. Similar to a Formula 1 pit stop, the goal is to have the aircraft ready to get back into the fight as soon as possible. During a FARP operation, a fighter lands after expending its munitions in the fight and keeps its engines running while support personnel conduct a “hot refuel,” pumping gas into the jet while it taxis. At the same time, others from the team quickly re-arm the aircraft, getting it ready to get right back into the fight.

In professional racing, pit crews are often world-caliber athletes, frequently recruited directly from highly-competitive Division 1 college sports programs to fill specific roles within the team. FARP operations require a similar degree of physical capability combined with mental acuity, but while racing is certainly a stressful enterprise, few human experiences can compare to the stresses involved in warfare.

Recognizing the technical difficulties of FARP operations, the Air Force has created a FARP identifier for qualified Airmen. Further, active FARP units are available only at a few select installations.

6th-Generation Stealth Fighter

F-35 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

F-35 Beast Mode

F-35 image. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

F-35 Defense Budget

A U.S. Navy F-35C Lightning II fighter jet performs during the California International Air Show in Salinas, California, Oct. 29, 2021. The F-35C has a larger wingspan and internal fuel capacity as well as stronger landing gear than the F-35A and F-35B variants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew D. Sarver)

Lasers

F-35A Joint Strike Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The FARP concept, while seemingly novel, isn’t a new one. Special operation forces have been using it for decades now. The elite pilots of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, nicknamed the “Night Stalkers” depended on the FARP concept to conduct sustained operations in the opening days of the war in Afghanistan. Night Stalkers flying the AH-6 Little Bird went hunting al-Qaida terrorists and Taliban fighters night after night, with FARP operations enabling them to do so.

“There are many benefits to being able to conduct FARP operations, specifically for the pilots involved in Iron Dagger,” an F-35A Lightning II pilot who participated in Operation Iron Dagger, said.

“It provides them with the real world experience and training of being able to land anywhere with a suitable runway, rapidly refuel and take off again with the fuel they need to continue to feed the fight.”

“Being able to conduct FARP during Operation Iron Dagger complicates the calculus for our adversaries. FARP showcases our ability to refuel and rejoin the fight from any location.”

Both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft can benefit from FARP operations, and the Pentagon has employed or tested the concept on the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, A-10 Thunderbolt II, AH-1Z Viper, F-15C, MQ-9 Reaper, AH-6 Little Bird, and CV-22 Osprey, among other platforms.

ACE and FARP are two capabilities that enable Air Force units to be strategically predictable and operationally unpredictable.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a Greek Army veteran (National service with 575th Marines Battalion and Army HQ). Johns Hopkins University. You will usually find him on the top of a mountain admiring the view and wondering how he got there. This first appeared in Sandboxx News. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.

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