Two USAF F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft, assigned to the 421st Fighter Squadron, Hill AFB, Utah, right, fly in formation with two Finnish F-18 Hornets, left, while en route to Turku, Finland, on June 13, 2019. Air Force photo by A1C Jovante Johnson.
LE BOURGET, France—Although this is the Air Force’s second F-35 deployment to Europe, it’s the first time the fifth-generation fighters have intensely operated with partner nations and regularly forward deployed to new locations.
The airmen and 12 jets from the 421st Fighter Squadron at Hill AFB, Utah, first deployed to Europe in late May as part of a theater security package. Since then, they’ve forward deployed to Italy, Switzerland, Finland, and Norway, and the unit will continue operating from Spangdahlem AB, Germany, through the rest of the summer.
“Interoperability is huge for us in the F-35. …. We’re deploying over here really to just work with NATO members, to build alliances, to build partnerships, which I’ve never had the opportunity to do in the European theater,” 421st FS pilot Capt. Joseph Walz said during an interview at the Paris Air Show.
An F-35 from the squadron was on static display at the Paris Air Show, where two years before the jet made its international debut with a much-celebrated aerial display. Two of Hill’s F-35 squadrons are currently deployed—the 421st in Europe and the 4th Fighter Squadron is in US Central Command. Hill’s runway is currently closed for renovations, so the remaining 34th Fighter Squadron is now operating out of Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. The runway closure was a “catalyst” for the 421st to make the current deployment, Walz said.
So far, the aircraft have flown in multiple large-scale exercises, including Exercise Astral Knight in Italy, which marked the first time USAF F-35s have trained with the Italian Air Force. Walz served as a mission commander for the exercise. The aircraft flew the same mission set every day, enabling them to work out some kinks on the first day before reaching “overall mission success” most of the rest of the time, he said.
Astral Knight also gave the US and Italy, along with Slovenia and Croatia, a chance to develop a multi-layered defense with command and control out of Aviano AB, Italy.
“The fact that Italy was operating their F-35s in synchronization with US F-35s, we actually learn from each other,” USAFE Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Steven Basham said in an interview.
Other training events included Baltic Operations and NATO training in Spain. The F-35s also flew in Switzerland and made an air show appearance in Finland before Paris. On June 17, USAF and Norwegian F-35 maintainers worked together on jets for the first time at Orland AB, Norway, that country’s F-35 operating base.
The Air Force’s F-35 fleet has had issues increasing its readiness to the overall goal of 80 percent. And while officials did not have specific MC rates for the deployment, maintainers have worked hard and done preventative maintenance to keep the jets ready while in Europe.
Such interactions give USAF F-35 operators the chance to work inside host nations and with their systems, “which gives us sort of an unparalleled competitive advantage if we’re going to come into this theater, if ever we’re going to have to employ the F-35,” Walz said. “We already have their systems, we know how they work, it will be much easier to bring our jets in and incorporate with them.”
Flying alongside other F-35s in training, and the recent announcement that the Air Force will stand up an F-35 aggressors squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., will give pilots better training as potential adversaries improve their aircraft fleets.
“As the world changes and fifth generation stealth capability comes online, with our partners and our allies, we need to train to the threat that’s going to be out there,” Walz said.