HILL AIR FORCE BASE — A contingent of Utah airmen is preparing to join in a major multinational training exercise in the skies over the Far East.
Approximately 300 airmen are scheduled to depart for a monthslong assignment to Japan in the next few days. Men and women from the active duty 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base will accompany 12 F-35A Lightning II fighter jets in a scheduled deployment to Kadena Air Base for a six-month rotation.
The aircraft and supporting personnel are expected to arrive in early November, according to Col. Dave Smith, commander of the 419th Fighter Wing.
"Roughly two-thirds will be from the 388th Fighter Wing and one-third from the 419th Fighter Wing," he said. "We'll be training alongside with our allies and partners."
Asked if the exercise was in response to perceived threats from North Korea, Smith noted that the training had been scheduled months in advance as part of ongoing military operations.
"It's normal, regularly scheduled training that we do in the Pacific theater," Smith replied.
He explained that Reserve personnel will likely "swap out" around the halfway point of the deployment, with other local reservists taking the place of the first group of Utah-based airmen.
He said the F-35A is being deployed under U.S. Pacific Command’s theater security package program, which has been operational since 2004. This long-planned deployment is designed to demonstrate the continuing U.S. commitment to stability and security in the region, Smith said.
"It's an amazing opportunity to take the F-35 to the (U.S. Pacific Command's area of responsibility)," he said. "We're really excited about the capabilities of the weapons system. The F-35 is a phenomenal aircraft."
While this deployment is a first in-theater assignment for the F-35A, the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B stealth fighter has been stationed at Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan, since January, he noted.
Lee Kloos, 388th Fighter Wing commander, called the training mission an opportunity to "showcase" the collaborative talents of the Hill military personnel as well as the advanced technology of the latest generation U.S. Air Force stealth fighter jet.
"It's exciting for the unit because we're the only combat unit in the Air Force with the F-35," he said. Among the allied partners participating in the training exercise are Australia, the Republic of (South) Korea and Japan, he said.
While the Hill personnel will be flying and maintaining the F-35, other aircraft involved in the training include the F-22, F-16 and F-15 flown by various allied nations as well as pilots in the other branches of the U.S. military.
"It's a good opportunity to integrate with them and show them what the F-35 is going to bring to the fight," Kloos said. An experienced fighter pilot with years in the cockpit of the F-16 and F-35, he noted that being an older flyer can sometimes limit the imagination of what can be done with the technologically advanced F-35.
Several first-time F-35 pilots will be involved in the training, he said, and their youth and creativity should add to efforts to develop innovative new combat strategies.
"The great part about bringing in these young lieutenants that we have now who are about to fly the aircraft, they are not hindered by any of the past or things that we've done before (in previous generation jets)," Kloos said. "They're the ones who can think about how we can employ this (new jet) even differently than maybe some of us older folks can do."Comment on this story
Officials said this exercise marks U.S. Pacific Command’s first operational training mission for the F-35A and builds upon the U.S. Air Force fifth-generation stealth fighter’s successful debut in the Indo-Asia-Pacific at the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition earlier this month.
“The F-35A gives the joint war fighter unprecedented global precision attack capability against current and emerging threats while complementing our air superiority fleet,” said Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Pacific Air Forces commander. “The airframe is ideally suited to meet our command’s obligations, and we look forward to integrating it into our training and operations.”