The newest F-35A, straight out of the factory, found its new home here at Edwards Air Force Base, California, August 1. The fighter aircraft, U.S. Air Force serial number 338, is the first of six F-35s the 461st Flight Test Squadron 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 Air Force’s newest fighter that will create tactical and operational advantages over peer competitors. 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 461st needs airplanes; our complex test missions require a 4-ship of instrumented test jets to fully evaluate F-35 warfighting systems. The F-35 is modernizing 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 4-ship formations in each configuration, which drives an increase to our total fleet size. The F-35 is getting more computing power so it can host new capabilities as well as future weapons as we need them,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Bearce, an Air Force Reservist with the 370th Flight Test Squadron currently flying for the 461st “Deadly Jesters.”
The software and hardware upgrades are aimed at increases the Lightning II’s capabilities and survivability in contested combat environments. These future upgrades will benefit the 826 fielded F-35 aircraft in the US Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy as well as the eight partner nations in the F-35 program and the 15 total nations participating in the F-35 program. 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.
The 461st Flight Test Squadron is a U.S Air Force squadron, assigned to the 412th Operations Group of Air Force Materiel Command, and is stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The Squadron performs flight testing on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The squadron’s origins can be traced to the 361st Fighter Squadron, which flew combat in the European Theater of Operations, where it won a Distinguished Unit Citation before inactivating in 1945. In 1985, the 361st Squadron was consolidated with the 461st Tactical Fighter Training Squadron. The 461st had been activated in 1956 as the 461st Fighter-Day Squadron and served as a fighter unit in Europe until 1959. It served as a training unit in Arizona starting in 1977. The consolidated unit was inactivated in 1994, but was activated again in its current role in 2006.