HILL AIR FORCE BASE — For the first time, the U.S. Air Force has joined its European allies in military training exercises using its latest high-performance fighter jets.
Officials at Hill Air Force Base confirmed Monday that F-35As from the (active duty) 34th Fighter Squadron, 388th Fighter Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 466th Fighter Squadron, 419th Fighter Wing will participate in joint air training with other Europe-based aircraft in support of the European Reassurance Initiative.
Much of the training will take place near Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the United Kingdom. The Utah airmen and crew members arrived on Saturday and are expected to participate in training exercises over the next several months.
"The exercise that we're participating in is called "Iron Hand," said 419th Fighter Wing commander Col. Dave Smith. "It's a normal exercise that we participate in every year alongside our NATO partners."
Overseas training deployment, he said, has been part of the Air Force’s plan since the F-35A was declared combat ready last year as part of the natural progression of the F-35 development program.
Though he could not confirm the number of jets that are being deployed during the training, Smith said Hill's fleet currently includes 20 F-35s stationed at base. Over the next few years, the fleet will increase to about 78 F-35 fighter jets.
By late 2019, Hill Air Force Base should have its full complement of F-35s and their pilots that will be permanently based in Utah, he said.
The training deployment is an effort to maximize training opportunities with other NATO nations, build partnerships with allied air forces and gain a broad familiarity of Europe’s diverse operating conditions, Smith said. The introduction of the U.S. military's premier fifth-generation fighter to the European theater furthers efforts to use enhanced technology in collaborative military operations, he said.
The F-35 includes state-of-the-art sensors and a broad array of advanced air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions that will help maintain the fundamental sovereignty rights of all nations, according to Smith.
The transatlantic flight for the training deployment was supported by Air Mobility Command and the 100th Air Refueling Wing, (Royal Air Force) Mildenhall, England, he said. Multiple refueling aircraft from four different bases offloaded more than 400,000 pounds of fuel during the "tanker bridge" from the United States to Europe.
Additionally, C-17 and C-5 aircraft moved airlift support, moving maintenance equipment and personnel.
"We want to demonstrate that we can rapidly deploy the airplane just like our fourth generation platforms," Smith said.
Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the U.K. will be the first overseas "beddown" location for the F-35. In the military, beddown refers to the establishment of convenient facilities for troop support that can provide a ready platform for the projection of force, if the need arises.
"This deployment allows our pilots and maintainers to learn more about the European operating environment and will improve our interoperability with partners in the region,” said Gen. Tod D. Wolters, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Air Forces Africa commander, in a prepared statement.
The F-35 Lightning II is a fifth generation fighter equipped with advanced stealth capability with fighter speed and agility. Critics have complained about the high cost of the high-tech stealth fighter — $130 million each, representing hundreds of billions of dollars for the entire fleet — and military leaders agree there is a need to bring the cost of the F-35A down.
President Donald Trump was one of the critics of the F-35 program. In January, he said he wanted to get costs associated with the jet fighter "way down."
"I’m very much involved with the generals and admirals on the airplane, the F-35, you’ve been reading about it. And it’s way, way behind schedule and many, many billions of dollars over budget. I don’t like that," he said at the time.
"We’re going to do some big things on the F-35 program, and perhaps the F-18 program," he said. "And we’re going to get those costs way down and we’re going to get the plane to be even better."
The president was not specific about what could be done to address the high costs.
Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, whose district includes Hill Air Force Base, said Trump's criticism of the high price tag was "appropriate," but he stressed the importance of the fighter jet to national security. Bishop also blamed "illogical production delays" for much of the added expense.
"The cost can and will continue to go down," he said. "Each production lot is approximately about 5 to 6 percent cheaper than the lot that preceded it. But by eliminating delays, you can save even more."
Bishop said he is confident that the costs associated with the F-35 will decline with increased and hastened production of the jet.
The $400 billion price tag of the F-35 makes it the most expensive weapons program in U.S. military history, the Associated Press reported in December. Currently, there are plans to build nearly 2,500 F-35s for use by the U.S. military.