F-35 Fighters Create ‘Big Impact’ In Ukraine War Without Firing A Missile; Draws Key Lessons For Future Battles

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet has proved to be a valuable asset for the US Air Force over Eastern Europe, according to the Air Force Times.

During the initial phase of the Russia-Ukraine War, the US Air Force sent its first F-35A units to support NATO. The active duty 388th Fighter Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 419th Fighter Wing were deployed to Germany’s Spangdahlem Air Base between February and May 2022.

The objective of their mission was to collect electronic data from the surface-to-air missiles and aircraft present in Eastern Europe to create a map to aid NATO operations, the Times said.   

Furthermore, if the conflict spreads into NATO countries, the collected data could be used to provide military support.

Upon returning from overseas deployment in May 2022, American airmen have been focusing on incorporating the lessons and insights from their experiences. 

One of the key takeaways from the deployment was the flexibility and adaptability of the F-35. These features allowed the aircraft to be utilized in “agile combat employment,” or quick-turn combat operations across various regions with minimal staffing.

However, it was also noted that more personnel are required for skeleton crews during distributed operations across different locations. 

The report further reveals that the pallet of spare parts was too bulky, which led crews to develop lighter, modular packages. In addition, F-35 pilots were trained to refuel their own jets and conduct engine inspections in emergencies, enhancing their problem-solving skills.

The F-35’s ability to connect with other NATO planes has been lauded as a significant achievement for the alliance. Lockheed Martin anticipates that by 2030, more than 400 F-35 aircraft will be stationed in Europe, making it the primary fighter in any upcoming regional conflict.

Capt. Jeremy Touma, an F-35 pilot with the 388th Fighter Wing out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is greeted by Senior Airman Brett Buerkle, a crew chief with the 4th Fighter Generation Squadron, after landing on a simulated forward operating base on Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., March 2 during exercise Agile Flag 23-1. (Daniel Malta/US Army)

Col. Craig Andrle, the commander of the 388th Fighter Wing, stated that they were not crossing borders or engaging in any hostile activity. “But the jet is always sensing, gathering information. And it was doing that very, very well,” Andrle added.

The mission allowed the US Air Force to refine its recently adopted strategy of quickly deploying resources when required. Additionally, it demonstrated the F-35’s progress in communicating with the joint force and swiftly adapting to unforeseen dangers. 

Nevertheless, it also provided new information regarding what the jets are currently missing, as the military warned about potential future conflicts with China or Russia. 

The F-35 fighter jet can counter and eliminate air defenses that could threaten allied aircraft, creating a safe path for other aircraft to enter enemy territory. Additionally, the jet can detect and analyze electronic emissions from nearby radars, creating a comprehensive picture of friendly and enemy forces in the area. 

During the deployment in Europe, airmen observed these threats in Ukraine and Kaliningrad, the Russian province sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. The F-35s could locate and identify surface-to-air missile sites, providing valuable information to the rest of the coalition, Andrle said.  

Indian Air Force veteran and military expert Vijainder K. Thakur had earlier told the EurAsian Times that the F-35 was most likely collecting information on Russian air defense systems and radars (and sharing info for precision strikes on Rusian military).

He added – F-35 has outstanding optical and passive RF sensors that permit it to discover targets on the ground. They can relay target information to forward-deployed fighters acting as weapons trucks.

In other words, an F-35 deployed over Poland could stream targeting data to Ukrainian MiG-29 fighters operating over Ukraine. The F–35 would perform the role of an invisible sensor operating in the safety of Polish air space.

388th Fighter Wing

The 388th Fighter Wing was the first operational unit to deploy the F-35 fighter jet and has highly experienced personnel who have been with the program for years. 

However, the wing also supports other F-35 units, resulting in the loss of its most seasoned airmen. As a result, the pilot corps is younger than desired, but the new generation of tech-savvy pilots benefits from the advanced capabilities of the F-35. 

The pilots have also requested more simulators and advocated for new technology at the training ranges to better prepare for potential threats from China or Russia. 

The European deployment highlighted the importance of having access to flight and maintenance simulators worldwide to keep aircrews updated.

The 388th fighter wing plans to update its F-35 aircraft with fixes to prevent a potential engine vibration issue that caused an F-35B mishap in Texas in December. However, this problem has not affected any of their aircraft. 

The active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted an F-35A combat power exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, on January 6, 2020. (R. Nial Bradshaw/Air Force)

The wing hopes to receive two hardware and software updates, Technology Refresh 3 and Block 4, from Lockheed Martin. 

TR-3 is expected to be delivered this year, while Block 4 is not scheduled for another five years. These updates will enable the F-35 to carry a variety of advanced weapons and defense systems, which are necessary for future combat scenarios.

The knowledge and insights gained from the deployment will likely be used to develop improved approaches and methods to maximize the F-35 fighter jet’s performance and efficiency in future missions.