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Air Force F-35s fly through isles

William Cole
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A dozen of the Air Force’s new F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters are making their first Pacific deployment. The planes are stopping in Hawaii en route to Okinawa. Lt. Col. Scout Johnston is shown with Senior Airman Alex Evans, who handles the avionics on Johnston’s jet.

The proverbial “tip of the spear” is about to get sharper in Asia with 10 of the Air Force’s advanced F-35A stealth aircraft transiting through Hawaii on their way to the first operational deployment for the attack planes to Japan.

The F-35A Lightning IIs with the 34th Fighter Squadron arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Monday for a required 48-hour crew rest after flying 6-1/2 hours from Hill Air Force Base in Utah — refueling in air about nine times on the way.

The stealth jets are expected to leave today for the remaining 9-1/2 hours to Kadena Air Base, where they will join up with two other F-35As that participated Oct. 17-22 in the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition and flew on to Japan on Sunday. Those two planes also transited through Hickam from Utah.

The 12 planes and about 330 airmen that come with them are not expected to receive a warm welcome from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The National Interest wrote that one of the best weapons for “crushing North Korea in a war” is the arriving F-35As.

“The U.S. Air Force’s F-35As will boost the amount of available American airpower in the theater, adding to Washington’s ability to strike targets deep inside North Korea should war break out,” the publication said.

Sixteen of the Marine Corps’ version of the stealth airplane — the F-35B — are based in Iwakuni, Japan.

The F-35 family includes three variants: the F-35A with conventional takeoff and landing; the F-35B with short takeoff/vertical landing; and the F-35C aircraft carrier variant, plane maker Lockheed Martin said. All are single-seat jets.

The Air Force’s F-35A is the only version with a four-barrel, 25 mm Gatling gun, while the Navy version has a larger wingspan for carrier takeoffs and landings.

On Tuesday at Hickam, two of the 10 F-35As were lined up in open-air shelters next to seven of the Hawaii Air National Guard’s F-22 Raptor fighters. Both are “fifth-generation” warplanes with stealth, advanced sensors and exceptional maneuverability.

“The F-22s obviously over here are magnificent aircraft built for air superiority — great advanced sensors, great missiles,” said Lt. Col. Scout Johnston, who commands the 34th Fighter Squadron. “This jet — the F-35 — although it can do air superiority missions, it was purpose-built to be a strike aircraft, so air-to-ground, with the capability to do air-to-air as well.”

In 2016 a Pacific Air Forces official described how fifth-generation aircraft like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II would lead an air campaign in a conflict in the Asia-Pacific, using advanced sensors to target enemy aircraft and ground threats so other aircraft could follow.

Johnston described the F-35 as a “first-day weapons system.”

“It’s stealth. It’s hard to see. It’s got great weapons capabilities” and sensors that help “our whole system, the whole way we conduct air warfare,” assisting other aircraft in a conflict, he told reporters Tuesday.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said the F-35, which is intended to replace a variety of older fighter aircraft in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, is also the Defense Department’s “most ambitious and costly weapon system in history.”

LOCKHEED Martin said since the first F-35 was built, production costs have dropped, and a 2017 contract reflected a $94.3 million cost for the F-35A, $122.4 million for the F-35B and $121.2 million for the F-35C.

The plane maker said the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System streams real-time imagery from six infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft to the pilot’s helmet, allowing pilots to “look through” the airframe.

Senior Airman Alex Evans, 21, an avionics specialist going on the six-month deployment, said the aperture system is “pretty remarkable.”

“I’ve worn the helmet myself, trouble-shooting the helmet … and it is amazing. The targeting system on the front is (also) pretty remarkable. It’s like a pod, and you can see a man on that mountain over there,” he said, gesturing to the far hills.

The F-35A, declared combat-ready in August 2016, and which some pilots want to call the “Panther,” has had its share of setbacks along with the other variants.

The GAO said in a report Thursday that the Defense Department is sustaining over 250 F-35 aircraft, and shortages of spare parts are degrading readiness. From January through early August, F-35 aircraft were unable to fly about 22 percent of the time, the GAO said.

Over the summer, the Air Force temporarily grounded F-35As at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona over hypoxia-like, oxygen deprivation symptoms experienced by some pilots.

“We’ve had zero hypoxia issues at Hill Air Force Base,” Johnston said. “Not the same everywhere else, but for Hill it has been a nonissue.”

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