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The future fleet of the Air Force is touching down at its new home during the service's premier exercise.
Four F-35As were set to land at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in late February, just as Exercise Red Flag kicked off. The four jets, and the accompanying 135 airmen, are at Nellis to begin operational testing.
"[Testing] will look at what kind of capability does it have and how much and many aircraft we can generate and deploy and operate on a sustained base," said Lt. Gen. Burton Field, the deputy chief for operations, plans and requirements.
The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis will handle the testing. In preparation, the base has been setting up infrastructure and a maintenance facility to take the new Lightning IIs, squadron commander Lt. Col. Ryan Suttlemyre said.
The new jets, numbers 21 through 24, were flying directly to Nevada from the factory in Texas. The training will begin with maintainers working on the fleet and getting them ready for initial flights. It will start with one to two sorties per day, two to three days per week for the first few months, Suttlemyre said. The jet has gone through developmental testing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. At Nellis, it will fly through operational, software and weapons testing.
"We are primarily charged with tactics development," Suttlemyre said.
Pilots and maintainers have been in training at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and last fall the base was given the green light to move forward on full training after a successful operational utility evaluation. The Defense Department's Office of Testing and Evaluation, however, said in a January report that the service moved forward on the evaluation too early because the F-35 wasn't combat-ready.
The Air Force has not set a date for initial operational capability for the jet, although the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act requires a date to be set by June 1.
Initially, the service planned to purchase 1,763 of the F-35A conventional takeoff variants, a number Field said is the right amount for the service's current strategy, based off the administration's 2012 Strategic Guidance. The guidance calls on the Air Force to have an increased ability to operate where adversaries could use electronic jamming and other methods that would prevent other manned and unmanned aircraft from operating.
The 2013 NDAA allocated $3.1 billion for 19 of the jets. With sequestration coming, however, the service could cancel the purchase of three this year once the mandatory budget cuts are enacted, Field said.