Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in ‘world’s toughest dogfight’

It’s a landmark moment as Exercise Red Flag Nellis 24-1 kicks off. This is especially noteworthy because, for the first time, the F-35As from the Royal Australian Air Force [RAAF] are participating in combat training exercises in Nevada, USA. 

Ever heard of Exercise Red Flag Nellis? It’s a two-week air combat training program, conducted several times every year by the United States Air Force. For the RAAF, this exercise is considered the highest level of air combat training worldwide.

The RAAF has recently stationed approximately 150 troops to aid the existing forces from the US and UK. This fascinating mission began on January 15th, 2024, and is set to continue until February 2nd. The RAAF’s delegates consist of around 150 air force representatives, providing support to six F-35A aircraft Lightning II and the Tactical Command and Control Team.

Red Flag Nellis 24-1

The Exercise Red Flag is a long-established event, started by the US Air Force in 1975. It came about because of the Vietnam War, which exposed that the first 10 combat missions were the most dangerous for aircrews. This idea is reflected in the Red Flag Nellis exercise, where the start of a modern air campaign is mimicked through these initial 10 missions.

This challenging exercise is famous for using aggressor forces that include enemy jets, ground-based radars, and mock ground-to-air encounters. Additionally, they weave in cyber and spatial elements to make each mission’s threat simulation more authentic.

Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in 'world's toughest dogfight'
Photo credit: RAAF / X

If you’re looking for an event that gives a realistic view of what happens in the early stages of a modern air campaign, you can’t beat the Exercise Red Flag. Started by the US Air Force in 1975, this exercise seeks to create an authentic experience for aircrews. It carefully replicates the toughest conditions that aircrews could face in the first ten missions. 

Different domains

What’s unique about this exercise is how it incorporates different forces. Enemy jets and ground radars make up part of the ‘aggressor forces’, but there’s also a simulation of ground-to-air combat.

To make each mission feel even more real, cyber and spatial elements are also included. This way, the Exercise Red Flag effectively recreates the true threats and challenges of modern warfare.

Australia’s F-35s are ready

As previously discussed, the use of F-35 stealth fighters by Australia exceeded predictions, according to BulgarianMilitary.com. By late 2023, the Australian-based F-35s ascended the heights of achievement by obtaining the full operational capability [FOC] of the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters, a feat celebrated by the Royal Australian Air Force [RAAF]. 

Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in 'world's toughest dogfight'
Photo credit: RAAF / X

The FOC milestone, infamously referred to as the ‘kill rate’ among airmen, deals a significant blow to the ambitious efforts by China to exert superiority in the Indo-Pacific through potential conflict with Taiwan. The setback to China’s strategic plans is twofold since chatter about Australia adding more F-35 fighter jets to its fleet is already in the air.

The backbone of Australian Air Defense

Australia’s F-35 pilots adeptly manage the complex machinery of their aircraft, fulfilling their duties both efficiently and conscientiously. It’s worth noting that Canberra envisages the F-35 fleet as forming the core of Australia’s defense strategy for multiple future decades. Interestingly, there’s a buzz around the idea of the F-35 taking to the skies alongside Boeing’s fighter-like MQ-28 Ghost Bat drone – a possible manned-unmanned collaboration that, if it comes to fruition, would be a significant development in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in 'world's toughest dogfight'
Photo credit: RAAF / X

Yes, the F-35 has not been without its issues in recent years, but Australia’s affection for this jet is undiminished. The ballooning costs and the future outlay that remain uncertain have not deterred Australia one bit – if anything, they appear more eager than ever to procure additional units of Lockheed Martin’s stealth fighters. 

The beginning was not good

However, the journey of the F-35 in Australia hasn’t been an entirely smooth one. Even though the aircraft is beginning to attract considerable attention in the “land down under,” certain disconcerting reports continue to unsettle the public. 

An example of this discomfort is the planned governmental expenditure of an eye-watering A$14 billion for the upkeep and service of the existing F-35 fleet by 2053. If Canberra proceeds with upscaling its fleet to 96, it’s predicted that this will result in a significantly greater financial burden on the Australian taxpayer. 

Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in 'world's toughest dogfight'
Photo credit: RAAF / X

Adding to the concerns, Australia’s F-35s are projected to spend significantly less time airborne in the coming years, despite reaching Full Operational Capability [FOC]. This alarming prediction has ignited a nationwide conversation regarding the plane’s capabilities. As it stands, these figures are estimated projections from the budget committee of Australia’s Ministry of Defense and, at present, expenditure on the F-35 enjoys support from both sides of the political aisle.

RAAF F-35 updates

RAAF commanders point out that F-35 pilots are unearthing new functional aspects daily, particularly during exercises. Chris Witherstrom, Lockheed Martin F-35 Combat Air Australia’s head, asserts that Australians now have an aircraft that boasts the kinetic capacity of a traditional combat fighter, enhanced by sensor fusion power and onboard sensory equipment. These additions provide the kind of comprehensive awareness that significantly improves tactical decision-making. 

Australia has shown how rapidly it can cloak its F-35 fleet
Photo by Sergeant Craig Barrett

In recent times, Australia has performed a series of upgrades to its already-acquired F-35 stealth fighters. They have integrated the sophisticated AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System [DAS] and new cameras, allowing pilots a complete 360-degree view from their aircraft, turning these machines into true Australian “warhorses”

This year will see Australia continuing to advance its F-35 fleet. The Ministry of Defense has planned a series of updates including the initiation of a fresh electronic warfare system, hardware and software enhancements, and engine optimizations. While some of these proposed updates are already in progress, others are slated for commencement shortly. 

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