UOTT Expands Asset Portfolio: First Mission Using USMC F/A-18, UK F-35B Aircraft

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Cameron Greer
  • Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Detachment 6

The United States Operational Test Team (UOTT) completed an F-35 test mission designed to explore how the F-35 performs against 4th, 4th+, and 5th generation red air threats. This mission saw the first integration of F/A-18C/D aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101 into UOTT operations as advanced red air threats.

This mission also provided the first opportunity for F-35B aircraft from the UK’s 17th Test and Evaluation Squadron to play the role of 5th generation red air. With these additional assets, the UOTT confirmed that the F-35 is highly capable against the most advanced threats it may face.

The team is now aggressively training for the upcoming round of 30P08 testing. “Our operations division has been designing some tough mission scenarios with more advanced threats,” said Blanca Sterling, UOTT Deputy Operations Officer. “We are trying to challenge F-35 pilots with threat packages that utilize 4th, 4th plus, and 5th generation assets to truly test the limits of the aircraft.”

“When it comes to UOTT and VMFAT-101 integration, the F/A-18 is ideally suited to add complexity to UOTT missions,” said LtCol Ryan Franzen, VMFAT-101 Commanding Officer. “The combat systems of the F/A-18 can provide advanced adversary tactics and maximize F-35 targeting Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures.

“The use of U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 aircraft further sharpens the abilities of their pilots.” said Franzen. “Flying in UOTT missions presents the instructor aircrew at VMFAT-101 with valuable training opportunities that a Fleet Replacement Squadron typically does not participate in. It is important, for both the pilot and the air vehicle, to be challenged in realistic training missions like those regularly executed by the UOTT.”

“The UOTT has made some significant increases in the difficulty and realism of our test scenarios over the past six months that more directly mirror what we can expect in modern combat,” said Maj. Michael MacAndrew, UOTT Operations Officer. In this six-month timeframe, the team has completed all testing requirements for the F-35 30P07 software upgrade planned for release to all operational F-35 squadrons. “Our goal now is to prepare for the upcoming 30P08 software upgrade by designing test missions that really challenge F-35 pilots.  We want to find the operational limits of the software upgrade so that pilots know exactly how their aircraft performs in combat. VMFAT-101 is absolutely helping us do that.”

“The UOTT is responsible for delivering the operational truth about each of the three F-35 variants,” said MacAndrew. “Doing so requires the team to create realistic test and training scenarios that force the aircraft into contested environments. We want density in our threat pictures so that we are absolutely certain that the [F-35] A, B, and C models can each perform in environments with large numbers of air-to-air and air-to-ground threats.”

To accomplish this, the team added F-16, EA-18G, and surface-to-air threats to further challenge the F-35 aircraft fighting against red forces. Additionally, the team leveraged support from Royal Air Force F-35B aircraft from the 17th TES. Further bolstering the red force composition, these aircraft played the role of advanced 5th generation air threats. This integration represents the first time the UOTT has conducted a mission with a foreign partner – a significant milestone for both the UOTT and the 17 TES.

“The ability to participate in this UOTT mission, specifically, was of huge significance,” said CDR Matthew Fooks-Bale, 17th TES Commanding Officer. “It brought the squadron back to live large force employment, mission-level operational test. Squadron pilots have been maintaining tactical proficiency for precisely this reason, so this event provided the UK F-35 team an opportunity to support our brothers and sisters at the F-35 UOTT.”

“Pilots from the 17th TES not only flew as 5th generation low observable threats, but they also filled the “mission commander” role for all red forces,” said Fooks-Bale. “This involved two weeks of classified planning and briefings, coordination with USMC F/A-18C, USN EA-18G and USAF F-16 units as well as air-to-air tankers. During the mission, the squadron led tactics employment to complicate the mission for the blue forces, utilizing jamming from USN EA-18Gs to enable long-range targeting and coordinated fires among VMFAT-101 F/A-18 aircraft.

“Working with UK F-35 pilots represents an effort between the UOTT and the 17th TES to continue to seek opportunities to pool resources and combine efforts to enhance Lightning test and evaluation,” said Fooks-Bale. “The men and women who make up 17th TES remain in no doubt that supporting the UK’s closest ally in a combined operational test mission constitutes one of the squadron’s highest priorities.”

Engaging with VMFAT-101 and the 17th TES challenged each of the aircraft flying as blue air. These aircraft – four F-35Cs from AIRTEVRON NINE (VX-9) – were pushed to operate in a highly contested jamming and long-range targeting environment. The advanced threats that they flew against pushed VX-9 pilots to execute advanced tactics, thus generating critical insights for UOTT data analysts validating F-35 lethality and survivability.

While this mission demonstrated that blue air F-35s are lethal and survivable, conducting joint and coalition force training is also essential,” said CDR James Reynolds, VX-9 Detachment Edwards Officer in Charge. "The interchange and exposure to the various technologies, tactics, and procedures that each service brings to the table are essential in operational test and ensure that our forces are ready to integrate, fight, and win in any realistic future peer conflict. The integration with allied forces in a joint training environment is a key enabler of our ability to sustain and win in a fight that may be far from our shores."

The UOTT plans to continue leveraging support from both VMFAT-101 and the UK’s 17th TES.  With this additional support, the team now utilizes 4th, 4th+, and 5th generation fighter aircraft and tankers from 10 squadrons between the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and UK Royal Air Force.