Buried in a routine report on Italy’s contribution to NATO’s Air Policing for the past 59 years is mention of Italian F-35s currently deployed to the Ämari Air Base in Estonia. That base as well as the Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania and now the Malbork Air Base in Poland are used for around-the-clock air patrols by NATO warplanes.
As far back as 2004 with the Lithuanian base, fighter jets from Belgium, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the U.S. have flown a variety of advanced multirole combat aircraft near Russia’s borders; Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all border both Russian territory and Belarus.
NATO fighter jets used in the past include the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15, F-16, Gripen, Mirage, Panavia Tornado, Phantom II, Rafale and other combat aircraft. But in late April F-35s were deployed for the NATO Baltic patrols for the first time.
The Italian F-35s were used late last month in multinational air combat maneuvers in the Baltic region.
On June 29-30 NATO members and partners conducted air exercises over the Baltic Sea and the Baltic states. Twenty aircraft from NATO members Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Turkey and NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner Finland participated in second iteration of the Ramstein Alloy exercise. The alliance gave its account of the event the headline of Allies and Partners Test 4th and 5th Generation Interoperability in Baltic Region.
The fifth-generation aircraft involved was an Italian F-35 stealth multirole combat aircraft, the first time a fifth-generation aircraft has been deployed for NATO Air Policing.
Shortly before that the nine-day Falcon Strike 21 air combat exercise was conducted in Italy. The website of NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Command Europe reported that 600 personnel and F-35 fifth-generation combat aircraft from Britain, Israel, Italy and the U.S. participated in “complex scenarios,” and among other facets of the exercise staged “interoperability” training with units of the British Royal Navy.
The war games, hosted by Italy, were the first of their kind: a multinational effort by three NATO founding members and NATO partner Israel to stage integrated drills with the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for prospective use against a common adversary. Respectively, the participants supplied:
U.S. – Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs, Marine Corps F-35B Lightning IIs and F-16C Fighting Falcons
Britain – Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning IIs
Israel: Air Force F-35I Adirs and Gulfstream G550 specialized surveillance aircraft
Italy – Air Force F-35A and F-35B Lightning IIs, F-2000 Eurofighter Typhoons, Panavia Tornados, Alenia Aermacchi T-346s, AMX International ground attack aircraft, MQ-1 Predators and Gulfstream G550s
The newly-launched HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, flagship of the British Royal Navy, and its strike group also participated.
A Times of Israel report with the title In first, Israeli F-35s train in Italy – with Iran in their sights, described the participation of Israeli F-35s as the largest and farthest drill they have participated in to date. The newspaper further revealed that, “Though the explicit goal of the exercise is to improve the overall capabilities of the F-35 jet…a senior Israeli Air Force officer acknowledged that in part, this drill…was meant to prepare Israeli pilots for using the fighter aircraft against Iranian forces.”
Perhaps Iran is not the only nation in the sights of the F-35s.