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Agile Combat Employment: UOTT Takes Part in Lightning carrier concept aboard USS Tripoli

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

The U.S. Operational Test Team (UOTT) supported a U.S. Marine Corps F-35 spring test event aboard the USS Tripoli, led by the Navy’s Operational Test and Evaluation Force (OPTEVFOR). The mission demonstrated the Lightning carrier concept where several F-35B aircraft rapidly launch from a Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) ship to conduct missions involving large strike packages or hours of defensive counter air.

This particular demonstration showed how the Tripoli and other amphibious assault ships are capable of operating as dedicated fixed-wing strike platforms when needed and also capable of bringing fifth generation Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing aircraft wherever they are required.

“U.S. combat power projection relies upon the ability to rapidly compose force packages from anywhere in the world at any time,” said LtCol David Merritt, UOTT Commanding Officer. “The success of this mission not only highlights the versatility of the F-35B variant, but also cements its role as a lethal asset in Marine Corps operations.”

“This March 30 through April 9 test is a significant milestone event with interest at the highest levels of the F-35 Joint Program Office and Director, Operational Test and Evaluation,” said Merritt. “Our team provided invaluable data collection and analysis expertise for this mission. The test event saw a record breaking 16 of 20 aircraft rapidly launch from the USS Tripoli, ultimately communicating the feasibility of the Lightning carrier concept. Applying this concept to a larger scenario, the Marine Corps clearly has the ability to rapidly deploy the F-35B, even from multiple LHAs at the same time. Several divisions of fighters could be airborne within minutes with the ability to rapidly mass firepower if needed.”

While aboard the USS Tripoli, UOTT personnel gathered data from a series of tests examining how the F-35B performs without full support from the F-35 Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS).

“The opportunity to observe four units using three different kinds of procedures was incredibly valuable,” said Master Sgt. Eric Tate, UOTT Suitability Lead. “During these tests, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 225 (VMFA-225) used the full ALIS standard operating unit, Marine Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1) used only the ALIS portable maintenance aid (PMA), and VMFA-211 and VMFA-122 relied solely upon paper-based tracking procedures.

“Ultimately we were able to compare how the three different offline-ALIS procedures limit F-35 operations,” said Tate. “We were able to confirm that all of those offline procedures, even the paper-based operations, didn’t impose the kinds of limitations we were expecting to see. This testing highlights the Marine Corps’ ability to detach from ALIS in a deployed environment and continue to conduct F-35 operations.”

“The UOTT’s primary objectives encompassed evaluation of F-35 weapon system performance (availability), shipboard working environment issues, logistic sustainment issues, information technology and cyber-related concerns, timelines for reconstitution of aircraft data post deployment, and any other miscellaneous events or conditions affecting the F‑35B while underway on LHA‑7 during its first operational test,”  said Andy Komen, UOTT Suitability Engineer. “The UOTT team’s combined efforts and recommendations will undoubtedly bolster future the F‑35B weapon system deployments in a lightening-carrier environment conducting surge operations.”

“This type of testing continues to provide valuable data on the role that the F-35 plays in Agile Combat Employment,” said Col. Dan Javorsek, AFOTEC Detachment 6 Commander. “Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, refers to the rapid composition of force packages from forward operating locations, rather than from large bases. ACE gives our combat forces a number of options when fighting in contested environments,” said Javorsek. “This creates a battlespace that is flexible and releases us from the infrastructure requirements inherent in operating overseas bases.”

“As part of AFOTEC and OPTEVFOR, the UOTT is responsible for delivering the operational truth about the F-35 platform,” said Merritt. “Part of fulfilling this responsibility is examining how well the F-35 operates out of forward operating locations in a deployed situation.”

“The events aboard the Tripoli actually represent the second time the UOTT and AFOTEC Detachment 6 have gathered data to fulfill this responsibility as operational test organizations,” said Javorsek. In December 2021, the team supported the 63rd Fighter Squadron, out of Luke AFB, Ariz., in a mission designed to test how well the F-35 fights through contested airspace to reach a Forward Armament Refueling Point, or FARP.

“FARPs are critical in achieving Agile Combat Employment because they enable adaptive basing of agile forces that don’t necessarily have the Short Take-off Vertical Landing capability that the F-35B has,” said Merritt. “This mission, combined with the takeaways from the recent USS Tripoli testing, communicate the F-35A, B, and C variants all have the ability to quickly respond to a threat anywhere in the world and can do so in a variety of different ways. We are not limited to operating only out of large overseas bases.”

Since its inception in December 2019, the UOTT has served as the chief operational testing organization for the F-35A, B, and C variants. By critically evaluating capability improvements in each software update, UOTT engineers and analysts have been able to provide the Combat Air Force and Fleet with operationally relevant data as each software update is released to F-35 squadrons nationwide.

“With the team preparing to release results from 30R07 software testing, the addition of how the aircraft performs in a deployed environment with minimal infrastructure requirements is an incredibly valuable piece of information for our deployed commanders and their pilots,” said Merritt.

“The UOTT plans to return to another, yet undetermined, LHA in fall 2022 for more F-35 interoperability testing that includes seaborne and airborne assets,” said Merritt. “The UOTT team will continue conducting testing in a variety of operationally representative theaters. Additionally, testing focused on operations out of forward operating locations, FARPs, and LHAs are yet another demonstration of why the F-35 is such a lethal platform. Events like these clearly enhance our understanding of the F-35’s performance in the joint, multi-domain environment.”