HILL AIR FORCE BASE — In a show of military might, jet after jet took off from Hill Air Force Base on Monday in a scheduled exercise meant to keep the fleet ready at a moment’s notice.
While the effort has been in the works for some time, it came against a backdrop of political and military tensions in the Middle East following the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
Now, local U.S. forces are making a point of ensuring their readiness in case they are called upon to engage in combat in defense of the nation’s security.
On Monday, the 388th and 419th fighter wings at Hill launched 52 F-35s in successive short intervals as a display of military strength and preparedness, explained 388th Wing Vice Commander Col. Michael Ebner. The primary mission of the 388th Fighter Wing is to maintain combat readiness to deploy, employ and sustain F-35A Lightning II aircraft worldwide in support of the national defense, he said.
“Today’s exercise marks the accomplishment of over four years of work — a little over four years ago, we received our first F-35,” he said. “We now have our full complement of aircraft and locally, we turn this into a goal of full war-fighting capability.”
There are more than 2,000 airmen and civilian professionals assigned to the active duty 388th and reserve 419th Fighter Wings. Hill is currently home to three F-35 fighter squadrons with a total of 78 aircraft, he added.
In Utah, Hill Air Force Base is home to the largest fleet of F-35A II Lightning fighter jets in the country. The installation is also the maintenance hub for numerous military aircraft models. The Ogden Air Logistics Command at Hill maintains the F-16, F-22, F-35, A-10, C-130 and the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
As the U.S. Air Force’s only combat capable F-35A units, the 388th and 419th fighter wings must be able to launch any number of aircraft to support the national defense mission at a moment’s notice, according to public affairs officer Micah Garbarino. Last year, the units began regularly supporting combat operations with the F-35A during successive deployments, he said.
From April to October 2019, the 4th Fighter Squadron deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, and conducted combat operations in support of the Central Command mission in the region, he said. In October, the 34th Fighter Squadron departed on the wing’s second combat deployment. The 421st Fighter Squadron is ready to deploy whenever called upon, he noted.
“We are at full strength and our airmen are ready to continue to deploy this aircraft wherever we’re needed to meet any adversary,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander.
The wings conduct 40 to 80 sorties daily from Hill’s airfield, Ebner explained. A sortie is deployment or dispatch of a military aircraft, ships or troops from a defensive strongpoint, typically for a specific mission.
Launching aircraft from multiple squadrons simultaneously will present various challenges and allow the wings to evaluate the capabilities of maintenance professionals, as well as pilots and command and control teams, he said.
“The message is not just to potential adversaries, but it’s also to our nation’s leadership that they can count on the 388th Fighter Wing to support the combat power that they plan and require us to provide,” Ebner said.
He noted that the exercise was part of normal, scheduled training operations and not a response to any current events.
“What’s going on in the Middle East is completely coincidental with where we are as a fighter wing. We received our 78th aircraft in December of 2019, and so we have been planning this as kind of a culmination event of receiving our last aircraft,” he said. “Now we have our pilots, our aircraft and our support equipment all intact and in place and ready to go.”
He said this kind of exercise is way to gauge the status of all the members of the units and their level of preparedness.
“Every day we train, so if you think of it like a sports team, you practice but you do different drills. You practice different parts of your team, and that’s essentially what you saw here today,” Ebner said. “Sometimes we’re practicing for rapid (turnarounds), so we’ll take one aircraft, swap out pilots, we’ll (get) new pilots airborne. Or we’ll go to what we call ‘hot pits refueling,’ so you don’t shut down, you just take more gas and you go back up and we try to see how many sorties that we can launch in a day in rapid succession.”
“Today, we wanted to see what percentage of the fleet can we actually generate if we had to do a mass launch,” he added. “So we’re exercising different capabilities or different potential requirements requests that could be asked of us from our nation’s leaders.”
Meanwhile, Ebner noted that some of Hill’s F-35s will also be participating in the biannual air show scheduled for late June.
“This summer, June 27 and June 28, Hill Air Force Base will be hosting an air show. We will have the F-35 on display. We will have numerous other aircraft on display — the Thunderbirds will be here,” he said. “We expect to have large crowds out here during the summer to witness what the American taxpayer pays for, right? It’s your defense.”