Leveraging US and Allied F-35s in Northern Europe: USAF at RAF Lakenheath Prepares a Way Ahead

By Robbin Laird

When in the UK in 2016, I had a chance to meet with and talk about the way ahead from the base commander at RAF Lakenheath.

Col. Novotny is now Brigadier General Novotny and has taken his experience and perspectives to Nellis AFB.

Brig. Gen. Robert G. Novotny is the 57th Wing Commander, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He is responsible for 38 squadrons at 13 installations constituting the Air Force’s most diverse flying wing.

The wing flies and maintains more than 130 aircraft of the following types: A-10, F-15C/D, F-15E, F-16C/CG/CJ, F-22A, F-35A and HH-60G. The wing also utilizes E-3, RC-135, E-8, B-1, B-2, B-52, C-130, KC-135, C-17, AC-130U and MC-130P aircraft and MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft at 13 stateside bases to support the U.S. Air Force Weapons School syllabus.

General Novotny is responsible for four groups: 57th Adversary Tactics Group, 57th Operations Group, 57th Maintenance Group and the U.S. Air Force Weapons School.

In addition, he oversees the 561st Joint Tactics Squadron; U.S. Air Force Advanced Maintenance and Munitions Operations School; U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds; and the Red Flag and Green Flag exercises. 

Flight Hours: 2,500+
Combat Hours: 540+
Aircraft Flown: F-15C/D/E, B-1B, B-52H, HH-60G, HC-130J, MQ-1B, MQ-9A, A/T-38 and T-37

During the visit, Novotny provided significant insights into what he saw coming to the region with the ability of the US and the UK to fly with other F-35 partners in shaping a way ahead.

Question: You are an experienced F-15 pilot as well as having worked the F-35?

Col. Novotny: “I am and I have.

“This is my sixth F-15 assignment and worked the F-35 as the Commander of the 53rd Test & Evaluation Group, Nellis AFB,. So I was the Commander of the OT squadron for F-35.”

Question: Could you describe the process of the F-35 stand up at Lakenheath?

Col. Novotny: “The F-35 bed down decision was a secret NOFORN initially as the base selection was being made. Now with Lakenheath having been identified as the long-term base for F-35s in Europe, we can put the correct pieces in place.

“All the area planners are Brits who work at Lakenheath.

“They are Ministry of Defence employees who are working with the whole plan to standup the wing.

“And after the announcement, we have been working directly with RAF Marham and Air Commodore Smyth in shaping our approach. We deal frequently with the RAF F-35 program integration office and RAF Marham personnel have been here frequently to engage with our own Site Activation Task Force.

“So from the beginning, there is great synergy and opportunity to learn from each other.

“Obviously, they are primarily responsible for working the airspace issues, which will in turn shape how a basic element of how we will train and operate together as well.

“We’re talking about exchange opportunities across the logistics enterprise, and among the pilots as well. If you can fly the A you can fly the B; and vice versa; it is an adjustment, not a whole new training process.

“We are looking to have RAF pilots flying USAF jets and vice versa”

Question: When we were at Edwards, the USAF was maintaining a C and the young mechanic said that it was no big deal for it was just an F-35.

Col. Novotny: “That is where we want to get to here as well. A model pilots could fly B model airplanes with very little training and just be dual qualified”

Question: The synergy between Marham and Lakenheath can provide a strategic opportunity for the USAF.

What is your sense of this opportunity?

Col. Novotny: “That is really the bulls eye point.

We are bedding down a number of facilities in the United States, but what we are doing is different: it is standing up a common capability between two core allies at a critical point in the defense of US and allied interests.

“We are not flying alone; but joined at the hip. We will be flying exactly in the area of interest for which the plane was designed and can fly together, maintain together, and operate together leveraging the air and sea base for which the F-35 B will fly from as well.

“It is a unique and strategic opportunity for the USAF and for the nations.

“I’m glad that we are the first base overseas, but I see there is great potential for two countries to develop in concert, side-by-side, and to set, set the model for joint operations.

“As we get this right, we can bring in the Danes, the Norwegians and Dutch who are close in geography and the Israelis and Italians as well to shape the evolving joint operational culture and approach.

“Before you know it, you’ve got eight countries flying this airplane seamlessly integrated because of the work that Lakenheath and Marham are doing in the 20 nautical miles radius of the two bases.”

Question: As an F-15 pilot, you saw the challenge of breaking down the cultural barriers for the F-22 community to learn not to fly the F-22 like an F-15. I am sure you are seeing the same with the F-35?

Col. Novotny: “That is a good point.

“I remember when we first flew the F-22, we pilots were thinking, if all we’re going to do is fly like an F-15, that’s a gigantic waste of money. But over time, the F-22 community evolved to leveraging its unique capabilities.

“We have the same thing with the F-35. We’ll have to break down some cultural barriers. We’ll have to take the yoke off the intellectual capacity of the squadron. We’ll have to integrate them into Red Flag exercises and Iron Hand exercises in the group.

“And we’ll have to pay attention to what other countries are doing, and learn from mistakes, and adopt best practices.

“I think we can do all that right here at Lakenheath/Marham.

“That is why it is a strategic opportunity.

“To shape the day-to-day operational perspective, to shape the combat learning, which squadron pilots bring to the fight, we can do that here at Lakenheath.

“Two countries are working side-by-side to figure this plane out.

“And unlike the F-22, the F-35 is not being stood up as a small fleet. It is a global fleet, and by working the synergy here you can accelerate the learning curve.

“And it is inherently a coalition aircraft. Because everybody’s going to benefit, we’re all going to work together.

“And the ability to fly together means that the squadron pilots as well as the maintainers share their experiences.

“If you want to do a Red Flag, you send the force across the pond, prepare and it costs a dedicated amount of money to do that.

“Here we just fly and we can have our regular Red Flags over the North Sea.

“And it doesn’t have to be three weeks out of every fiscal year, or three weeks out of every two fiscal years.

“We’ve seen the Typhoons do QRAs since I’ve been in command, When you do that with F-35s, the US and coalition F-35s will now know exactly what’s going on at the same time.

“That’s happening here almost right now by shared awareness.

“With the F-35 will just take it up to, you know, two or three levels higher than that.

“I think this is going to be one of the test beds for integration, which will evolve, based on operational practice.

“Compare this with standing the F-35s up in the United States.

“For example, Hill AFB is doing great work in standing up the F-35 but they are only going to integrate with other US fighters or operate in the less frequent Red Flag.

“There are almost no other fighter units near them that are not already fully engaged in real world operations.

“We are standing up a coalition integrability force from the outset.

“Take my example at the OT squadron.

“I did two OT assignments and we worked to get into Red Flag when we could to do joint training. Here we can do that virtually every day. We reach the Dutch training airspace, and can work with the Dutch, with the Brits, with the Germans, with Typhoons, with F3s, with the NATO AWACS

“We take off and we fly 30 minutes to the east and we make it happen.

“It is Red Flag as regular menu; rather than scheduling a gourmet meal from time to time.

“Most of that learning is done after the sortie. Face-to-face interaction, the conversations that are happening in the squadron vaults that happens at Red Flag three weeks out of every two years.

“We will have the opportunity to do that regularly here.

“There is such a unique opportunity here compared to any other place.

“Because every other place which is s going to get into the F-35 program in whatever capacity is going to eventually attempt to develop a little bit of a stovepipe. It happens.

“This is the only place where it’s not the case.

“There’s no other place where we have a maintenance officer who’s run into an issue on Monday at Lakenheath and decides to get in the car and drive 35 minutes to Marham and talk to them and see what they’ve figured out face-to-face.

“Learn to listen.

“Have a bite to eat.

“Be back here by 2:00 in the afternoon with the solution that came from another country.”