U.S. Operational Test Team Completes High-Tempo, Joint Testing on F-35

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Cameron Greer
  • Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Detachment 6

The U.S. Operational Test Team (UOTT) conducted four large-scale, joint F-35 test events in four weeks, rapidly validating a series new F-35 capabilities. The joint team of Airmen, Sailors, Marines, and Guardians used 32 aircraft and more than 500,000 pounds of airborne fuel to complete the high-tempo testing across land and sea ranges. The testing was operationally relevant and highlighted how each of the F-35 variants contribute to gaining air superiority in any armed conflict.

The first of these test events was a Close Air Support mission at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Yuma, Ariz. Using the Marine Corps’ F-35B variant, the UOTT executed a mission requiring pilots to strike ground targets in close proximity to friendly positions.

“Demonstrating that the F-35 can perform detailed integration with ground forces is a critical pillar of performing good, relevant CAS missions,” said CDR Charles Escher, UOTT Chief Operational Test Director. Highlighting the importance of gaining air superiority, Escher said, “This CAS mission reminds us of how important coordinated fires are, and how limited power projection can be if air superiority isn’t established.” 

The mission also used the U.S. Marines’ Interim Full Motion Video (IFMV) – a B-model only capability that allows ground forces to see what the pilot sees in the cockpit – to execute this mission. “IFMV is modernizing F-35 close air support efforts,” said 2nd Lt Jason Centanni, UOTT Flight Test Engineer. “CAS, as we know it today, is changing. IFMV makes F-35 CAS easier to coordinate, and helps F-35 pilots correlate targets with improved speed and accuracy.”

Four days after the CAS events, the UOTT executed a long-range, sea-based mission using Navy and Air Force assets at Point Mugu Sea Range located off the coast of southern California. This joint mission included the Air Force F-35A variant, the Navy’s F-35C, and F/A-18 aircraft. “The team executed an extended 120 nautical mile Defensive Counter Air mission in which friendly aircraft focused on defending an asset against modern aircraft that represent an advanced adversary,” said Escher.

This mission is so important because we were able to clearly demonstrate the F-35’s ability to operate at extended ranges in an operationally realistic way,” said Ashley Vincent, UOTT Lead Engineer. “The test event showcased that the F-35 can operate seamlessly across variants and services.”

The UOTT has been conducting missions designed to verify F-35 combat capability of the 30P07 software upgrade since November 2021. “The team has always been laser focused on executing realistic test events,” said Escher. “Current and developing world events underscore the importance of operationally realistic testing. There should not be any surprises when it’s time to take the F-35 into a real-world fight, which is why these long-range missions over bodies of water are so important.”

After a rapid turnaround, the team completed the first two live-fire missile events in UOTT history on March 10. These events were completed at Point Mugu Sea Range and were led by Weapons Integration Test Engineer Joshua Herrera. “Both test missions were designed to test the integration of the advanced features of AIM-9X-2 missile with the latest F-35 software,” said Herrera. The missile test required two F-35C pilots to each shoot against a subscale BQM-34 remotely-piloted drone. After two independent, successful live missile fires, the UOTT is “confident that this mission has paved the way for future test missile fires which are now scheduled on a regular basis,” said Herrera.

To complete their rapid testing schedule, the UOTT executed another joint test with Navy assets. Air Force F-16s as well as Navy F/A-18 and F-35C aircraft flew in an offensive counter air (OCA) and suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) mission at the Nevada Test and Training Range located in southern Nevada's Great Basin Desert. This mission included ground threats that forced friendly F-35C pilots to operate in a contested environment.

“As the F-35 gains more capabilities, it was extremely beneficial to demonstrate that a small force of F-35’s can successfully locate and attack ground targets while simultaneously defending against air and surface threats,” said Escher. “This was the first time in the 30R07 software block that the team executed a mission with a reduced force composition. While we’ve demonstrated these capabilities before, this time we did it with even fewer F-35’s and fewer weapons, which helps us provide expectations for Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots and tactical planners.”

“Performing this test event with four F-35C models demonstrates that, even in small numbers, the F-35 is no less capable of being a lethal force on the battlefield,” said Vincent.

The UOTT is responsible for delivering the operational truth about the F-35 platform. The missions that the team conducted were aimed at fulfilling this responsibility and producing operationally relevant data for the Combat Air Force and the Fleet.

“Conflict around the globe can develop quickly. When asked to answer the call, we will be ready. The time to start doing operational test is not in combat,” said LtCol David Merritt, the UOTT’s Commanding Officer. “As the F-35 30R07 software block enters the final stage of operational testing before it is released to the operational F-35 fleet as 30P07, the UOTT remains steadfast in its promise to communicate exactly what the F-35 platform is capable of. This testing is always important for our military personnel on the tip of the spear to know how their equipment works, how best to use it, as well as if it doesn’t work in certain situations. This affects not only our pilots, but also our ground troops who depend on air assets as well as our coalition partners.”

The UOTT is currently in the final stages of test event analysis. Once this stage is complete, the team will release the results of all operational test events conducted with the 30R07 software block and provide updated performance metrics to combat F-35 pilots across all three services in preparation for software updates planned for release later this year.

The UOTT is part of the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center as well as the Navy’s Commander Operational Test & Evaluation Force. As a joint organization, the UOTT team is geographically separated with team members at Nellis AFB, Nev.; Edwards AFB, Calif.; Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.; and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. The team also partners with the following flying squadrons: VX-9 at NAWS China Lake; VMX-1 at MCAS Yuma; 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis: and the 461st Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB.