Each Air Warfare Instructor Course (AWIC) includes a Fighter Combat Instructor Course (FCI), which debuted for the F-35A Lightning II this year.

The Commanding Officer of No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit, Wing Commander Jordan Sander, spoke with Squadron Leader Eamon Hamilton about the introduction of a fifth generation fighter capability into the ‘AWIC.

What planning went into creating the first F-35A FCI course?

Detailed planning for the first course began in January 2021, one year before the start of AWIC22. The 81st Wing selected an F-35A course director who was responsible for developing the high-level course structure.

Determining the number of simulations and flights required for the F-35A FCI course included the learning outcomes and resources needed, which include airspace, Red Air elements, and ground threats. The course director then delegated the development of mission-specific details to several phase commanders.

Phase Commanders are responsible for a section of the course containing multiple flights and sims. It was a huge amount of work and we are very proud of what we accomplished.

The quality of the first F-35A FCI course exceeded my expectations, reflecting the technical proficiency and dedication of our personnel. Like everything in the Air Force, there are a lot of people behind the scenes that make it all possible.

Our operations, mission support, security, orderly room, logistics, off-board information systems and maintenance personnel; the workforce is a mix of uniforms, civil servants and contractors. The hardest thing was doing this in the middle of a transition as we continue to bring the F-35A into service. This transition means there are low experience levels and a new aircraft type where things are often new or unfamiliar.

Finally, our relationship with key personnel within the USAF Weapons School (at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada) has been critical in both the development of tactics and CFI courses. These relationships began with our own conversion to the F-35A (completed with the 61st Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona), and it is essential that we are proactive in maintaining them.

Avionics Technician Timothy Briggs, Leading Airman, No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit, inspects the exterior of an F-35A Lightning II in the munitions loading area at RAAF Base Darwin, RAAF Northern Territory, during Exercise Diamond Storm 2022. Photo: Chief Airman Sam Price

Was the F-35A FCI course content created entirely new, adapted from an existing curriculum, or was it somewhere in between?

The overall course schedule remains unchanged. We begin by focusing on the candidate’s teaching skills before moving on to air-to-air, ending with a counter-air defensive exercise called Diamond Shield.

We then do air-to-ground skills training that culminates in a big offensive drill called Diamond Storm. Anything below this high-level course flow had to be tailored to the F-35A and the threat identified for the course.

Since we only offer this course every two to three years, the course must be constantly rewritten with continuous upgrades and modifications to our abilities, threat and therefore our tactics.

For the F-35A in particular, the simulator performs better than the Classic Hornet, and the F-35A has significant capability against ground-based air defenses (GBADS) – so this course has incorporated many missions against them.

Creating these challenging missions is not without its challenges; every time we fly, we have to do it against a capable opponent. In this regard, 2OCU has been incredibly well supported by many Defense units. These include other F-35A squadrons that provide adversary air threats and ground systems operated by contractors that represent surface-to-air missiles. Without the level of complexity these assets provide, it’s hard to truly challenge the F-35A and the students.

What are the inherent strengths of the F-35A that make it particularly well suited to the missions that FCI candidates face?

The F-35A’s greatest strength lies in its mission systems and ability to enhance battlefield situational awareness for the joint force. The stealth of the aircraft also improves both our survivability and our lethality against advanced threats. Finally, the F-35A’s high internal fuel also gave us more options in how we refuel the entire air set.

Are we learning anything new about how we integrate the F-35A during AWIC?

It is only when we put our F-35A pilots into an integrated joint force that we properly understand the integration aspects. The first aspect of integration is communication – we need to speak a common language.

We need to understand how our data links interact with each other, made more difficult by the ever-changing nature of data link standards and platform software. More importantly, we must maintain strong Air Force-Defence relationships.

Once communication is mastered, we need to have built-in tactical procedures that define how we fight together.

Anything else you want to discuss?

AWIC delivered an integrated force like never before, and it’s a credit to 88 Squadron and the Air Warfare Center. Advanced capabilities like the F-35A are nothing without the people who operate them. AWIC has ensured that our next tactical experts are ready to lead us as an integrated joint force.