The new production Block 4 aircraft - serial number 20-5578 ‘ED’ (c/n AF-338) - was delivered to Edwards straight from the factory in Fort Worth, Texas, on August 1. The aircraft is the first of six F-35s that the 461st Flight Test Squadron (FLTS) ‘Deadly Jesters’ and F-35 Lightning II Integrated Test Force will receive in the next few years. The upgraded fleet will be used to test the Technical Refresh 3 and Block 4 configurations of the USAF’s newest fighter that will create tactical and operational advantages over peer competitors.
Lt Col Jonathan Bearce, an Air Force Reservist with the 370th FLTS currently flying for the 461st FLTS, said: “The 461st needs airplanes; our complex test missions require a four-ship of instrumented test jets to fully evaluate F-35 warfighting systems.” The 461 FLTS is the Department of Defense’s lead developmental flight test unit for sensors, weapons and software on all three variants of the F-35. The team has been behind every previous test project that has fielded new capabilities to operational F-35 units around the world.
“The F-35 is modernising from a Tech Refresh 2 configuration to a Tech Refresh 3 configuration. But we are still developing capabilities for both configurations for the next few years. Developmental testers need to evaluate those capabilities using four-ship formations in each configuration, which drives an increase to our total fleet size,” Bearce explained. The software and hardware upgrades are aimed at increases the Lightning II’s capabilities and survivability in contested combat environments.
Bearce continued: “Your iPhone gets upgraded all the time, this is kind of the same thing for the F-35. The F-35 is getting more computing power so it can host new capabilities as well as future weapons as we need them.”
These future upgrades will benefit the 826 fielded F-35 aircraft in the USAF, US Marine Corps and US Navy as well as the eight partner nations in the F-35 programme and the 15 total nations participating in the F-35 programme. Brand-new Tech Refresh 3 aircraft will be rolling off the assembly line starting in the summer of 2023. The ‘Deadly Jesters’ will use their bigger test fleet to ensure those jets are combat-ready from the outset.